The House of Representatives voted on April 26 in favor of the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act, a piece of legislation that’s important to the nation’s creative sector. The Senate will be introducing a mirror bill in the coming days, which is also expected to pass. The bill would make the head of the Copyright Office a presidential appointee (confirmed by the Senate) and create a panel of congressional leaders to recommend at least three qualified candidates for the president to choose from.
Until now, the librarian of Congress had the unilateral ability to appoint and remove the register of copyrights. The bill, the first step toward Copyright Office independence, garnered strong bipartisan support in the House, passing by a vote of 378–48.
Here’s why passing the bill matters: the Copyright Office is the sole government agency serving the interests of the nation’s creators, working closely with Congress on policy issues related to copyright law. Throughout its history, the office has worked with the creative sector—the publishing industry in particular—on practical and policy-related matters.
The nation’s copyright-based industries are a crucial part of our cultural and economic output. In 2015, the core copyright industries contributed more than $1.2 trillion to the GDP—nearly 7% of the U.S. economy—and employed more than 5.5 million workers. We need a Copyright Office whose standing within the government reflects that fact. The Copyright Office also advises Congress and conducts studies and issues regulations on copyright law. A proven copyright expert is needed—one responsive to the needs of the creative community.
Surprisingly, the register of copyrights currently reports to the librarian of Congress, who must approve all regulations issued by the Copyright Office, despite not being required to know copyright law. The Copyright Office is located in the Library of Congress and must submit its congressional budget request through the library. This is a holdover from the late 19th century that enabled the library to have easy access to the deposit copies of books sent to the Copyright Office when registering copyrights.
But today, this arrangement is unnecessary; It’s important for the office to have control over its own budget and technology needs. The library’s IT infrastructure simply is not set up to meet the Copyright Office’s needs as a 24/7 customer service bureau. The office desperately needs to digitize all of its records and create a single online file for each work so that copyright ownership is easier to trace.
Increased independence will help the Copyright Office accomplish these goals, and making the register a presidential appointee will give him or her the authority to issue regulations without seeking approval. (In order to issue regulations or set policy, an agency head must be a presidential appointee.)
There are potential conflicts of interest between the library and the copyright community. While authors have much in common with libraries, they are just one stakeholder in copyright discussions. In recent years, the major library associations have advocated for reduced copyright protections, in some cases to the detriment of authors and publishers, and also for the survival of a free and open publishing marketplace. This potential conflict became clear late last year, when the popular register of copyrights, Maria Pallante, was removed without consulting the creative industries or the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.
HR 1695 is a long-overdue effort to bring the U.S. Copyright Office into the 21st century and to give copyright law and the creative sector the place they deserve in the federal government. The Authors Guild and the other organizations in the creative sector that have weighed in on the matter are convinced that this bill changes the register-selection process in ways necessary to secure the office’s long-term ability to protect the rights of creators and creative industries.
Mary Rasenberger is the executive director of the Authors Guild.