Sen. Patrick Leahy Extends Same-Sex Marriage Battle to Copyright: "Time to Fix These Outdated Laws" (Guest Column)

Vermont's senior statesman writes for THR about his legislation to close a loophole that prevents legally wed gay couples from passing on rights when they die: "Artists are the creative lifeblood of our nation, and our laws should protect their families equally"
Illustration by: Skip Sterling

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In October, action by the U.S. Supreme Court helped ensure same-sex couples in five additional states the unquestioned right to marry the person they love. This historic decision and those of lower courts throughout the country have ensured that same-sex couples in 35 states and the District of Columbia are, or will soon be, able to marry. We have seen tremendous progress in one of the defining civil rights issues of our era. In modern America, no person should face discrimination based on the one they love.

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Unfortunately, there is more to be done. Court challenges will continue in the remaining states that do not recognize marriage equality. The federal government also has work to do to ensure that same-sex married couples reach full equality and receive the same federal rights, privileges and benefits as other married couples in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in the Windsor case in 2013.

In Congress, there are several steps legislators could take immediately to help ensure our federal laws treat all marriages equally. Surprisingly, the Copyright Act, which protects our nation's diverse creative voices, bears vestiges of discrimination. A provision in the act grants rights to surviving spouses of copyright owners only if the marriage is recognized in the owner's state of residence at the time he or she dies. This means a writer who lawfully marries his or her same-sex partner in Vermont or California is not a "spouse" under the Copyright Act if they move to Florida, Georgia or one of the other states that do not recognize marriage equality.

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Congress should close this discriminatory loophole to ensure our federal statutes live up to our nation's promise of equality under the law. Following the Supreme Court's invalidation of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, and more recent progress for marriage equality in states throughout the country, it is wrong for the federal government to deny benefits or privileges to same- sex couples who have lawfully wed.

I am introducing the Copyright and Marriage Equality Act in the Senate to correct this problem. The bill, a version of which was introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Derek Kilmer, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Jared Polis, amends the Copyright Act to look simply at whether a couple is married, not where a same-sex married couple happens to live when the copyright owner dies. It will ensure that the rights attached to the works of our nation's gay and lesbian authors, musicians, painters, sculptors and other creators pass to their spouses the way they now do for heterosexual creators. Artists are the creative lifeblood of our nation, and our laws should protect their families equally.

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Statutes like the Copyright Act, or laws governing the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs that also contain remnants of discrimination, are no place for inequality in our country. It is time to fix these outdated laws once and for all.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the chamber's president pro tempore and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal copyright law.

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