Just days after its introduction, a bill that would allow Donald Trump to appoint the next Register of Copyrights has passed out of Committee, with amendments.
On March 29, by a 27-1 vote, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act, (H.R. 1695). But the bill now proposes that a panel made up of members of Congress and the Librarian of Congress would create a list of at least three qualified candidates for the position. The President would then choose the appointee from that list, and the Senate would confirm. Further, the president would still be able to remove the register, but only for cause.
In a statement, the committee’s Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), an original co-sponsor of the bill, praised the swift passage and said the amended bill, if passed, would make the Copyright Office more accountable to Congress, and “responsive to all stakeholders in the copyright ecosystem.”
Critics, however, say the bill does just the opposite: it gives the executive branch more power over the Copyright Office, at the behest of the entertainment industries, and over the objections of library, tech, and public advocacy groups.
In a statement, Ryan Clough, general counsel at advocacy group Public Knowledge, questioned why the bill was being “rushed” through committee mark-up less than a week after it was introduced.
“This bill raises larger questions about the institutional structure of the Copyright Office, but punts all of them to future legislation,” Clough noted. “At a minimum, members of the Judiciary Committee should ask why it is necessary to stop [the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden] from naming anyone as Register in the short-term, while the Committee considers Copyright Office reform for the long-term.”
In a blog post at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Kerry Sheehan conceded that the bill, which she called “a strange one,” would in theory give Congress slightly more oversight of the Copyright Office (after all the Register currently is accountable only to the Librarian of Congress). But in practice, "we fear it’s designed to do something else: allow powerful incumbent interests to use their lobbying power to control this increasingly politicized office,” Sheehan wrote.
In a statement last week, the Library Copyright Alliance, a group of national library organizations, called the proposal "mystifying," and urged Congress to reject the bill.
Currently, Karyn Temple Claggett is leading the Copyright Office on an interim basis, after Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden abruptly ousted Maria Pallante last fall.
In a statement this week, Goodlatte and Conyers said the bill is necessary because "the authority of the Copyright Office to conduct rule makings has been challenged in the courts," and that making the register a presidential appointment would "put to rest, once and for all, that question.”
But sources tell PW the bill is an attempt to keep Hayden from appointing a permanent successor to Pallante, after Pallante’s removal by Hayden last fall was met with dismay in the content industries, some of whom suggested the move was part of a Google-led conspiracy.
In January, Pallante was tapped to lead the Association of American Publishers, which strongly supports the measure.
“H.R. 1695 is an excellent first step that will pave the way for other long overdue improvements to the agency’s authority and infrastructure,” reads an AAP statement. “We urge swift passage of H.R. 1695 and hope that the appointment and confirmation of the Nation’s next Register takes place soon after."
The bill comes after the House Judiciary Committee last December released a policy proposal backing the creation of an autonomous Copyright Office, with the register a presidential appointee, the first proposal to come from a lengthy, recently-concluded review of the nation’s copyright laws.
While there is broad consensus that the Copyright Office is in need of an overhaul, there is sharp disagreement over how that should happen.