Conflicting Visions for the Future of the Copyright Office

By many accounts, 2016 has been a tumultuous year, including within the realm of copyright. The latest copyright skirmish comes as we are all preparing for a new year, and a new Presidential administration—and all the attendant questions and uncertainty those bring. It seems that there are those within Congress who are taking this time of transition as an opportunity to put forth suggested changes to the structure of the Copyright Office and its historical relationship with the Library of Congress. While there may well be cause to review the operations of the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress, particularly as our newest Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, settles into her tenure as Librarian and begins to chart her course for fully bringing the LOC into the 21st century, the suggestions that have come forward thus far have been more concerning than intriguing.

For those who are not as knee-deep in copyright nerdiness as I, a quick recap of events:

  • On October 21, 2016, the seemingly abrupt re-assignment of the Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, caught many by surprise; however, given that her previous calls to move the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress were at odds with the new Librarian of Congress’s desire to keep the CO within the LOC, it isn’t wholly surprising.
  • On November 28, 2016, two former Registers of Copyrights, Ralph Oman and Marybeth Peters, issued a letter calling for the removal of the Copyright Office from the Library of Congress, citing Ms. Pallante’s dismissal as evidence that all libraries, and especially the Library of Congress, are poor leaders of the U.S. copyright system.
  • On December 8, 2016, the House Judiciary Committee issued a statement (and YouTube video…who knew they did this? I didn’t!) charting proposed revisions to the structure of the Copyright Office and the appointment process for the Register of Copyrights within the Legislative Branch.

Needless to say, many librarians, libraries, and library organizations rightly objected to Mr. Oman’s and Ms. Peters’s denunciation of libraries as effectively being at odds with copyright and their call for an “independent” Copyright Office.

In swift response to the House Judiciary statement last week, the Library Copyright Alliance issued a statement calling for the Copyright Office to remain within the Library of Congress and under the supervision of the Librarian of Congress. This week, two additional letters have been issued: one by ASERL’s own Duke University Libraries, and another by 42 copyright experts working in libraries [full disclosure: I signed], an effort spearheaded by an ASERL colleague from UVA, Brandon Butler. These letters voiced further support for the retention of the Copyright Office within the Library of Congress, and expounded upon how libraries and librarians do, in fact, work to support the role of copyright as enshrined in the Constitution to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”

Hopefully these are just the first of many voices affirming libraries’ support for copyright, and for keeping the responsibility of oversight of the Copyright Office, and appointment of the Register of Copyrights, under the auspices of the Library of Congress.

UPDATED December 16, 2016 11:54 a.m.

Hot off the presses from the U.S. Copyright Office NewsNet Issue 648, a way to make your voice heard on what you believe we need in our next Register of Copyrights:

The public will have the opportunity to provide input to the Library of Congress on expertise needed by the Register of Copyrights, the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, announced today.

Beginning today, December 16, an online survey is open to the public. The survey will be posted through January 31, 2017. Input will be reviewed and inform development of knowledge, skills, and abilities for fulfilling the Register position.

Information provided through the survey will be posted online and submitters’ names will appear. Note that input will be subject to review, and input may not be posted that is off-topic or contains vulgar, offensive, racist, threatening or harassing content; personal information; or gratuitous links to sites that could be considered spam. The Library’s complete comment policy can be viewed here.

To provide input through the survey, click here.