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March 23 2017

Congress to Free the Copyright Office from the Thumb of the Library of Congress

by Patrice Lee

What do Taylor Swift, Reese Witherspoon, and J.K. Rawlings all have in common with you? Yes, they’re women, but they’re also content producers creating work in music, film, and literature.

In our modern age, everyone can be a producer of content – from mommy blogs to videos on DIY projects. Part of what’s exciting about the internet is the ability to generate and distribute your own content to thousands, millions, and even billions of people. While generating content may be a hobby to many of us, creating content is a profession for others from song writers penning top hits to New York Times best-selling authors. Add to that the inventors we see vying for deals on shows like Shark Tank.

It’s important then that we are able to protect our work from being used or copied without our permission or attribution. We have a legal framework for those protections in our nation’s copyright laws and intellectual property rights enshrined in the Constitution.

The U.S. has a federal office, the Copyright Office, was serves an important function in administering that framework. This little office, housed in the Library of Congress, maintains all 60 million copyright registrations for copyrighted work in the U.S. That’s a lot of paper!

Congress has recognized that the Copyright Office, which was created 120 years ago, has fallen behind the times and is struggling to fulfill its mission. Imagine, copyright registrations aren’t even digitized much more available online in a searchable database. Therefore, as a first step toward modernization and reform to transport this office from the horse-and-buggy era into the digital age, Congress plans to introduce legislation today that would begin the process.

The House and Senate Judiciary Committees will introduce measures to make the Register of Copyrights, which is the director of the Copyright Office, a Presidentially-nominated, Senate-confirmed position. Currently the Register is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, but as we explained in our testimony for the record to Congress recently, it’s time for that arrangement to end:

“The reason the Copyright Office has been hamstrung has to do with its relationship to its landlord. Housing the Copyright Office in the nation’s library may have been a convenient move at the time of its creation, but the demands of a 21st century marketplace coupled with the real challenges faced by the Library to fulfill its own mission have demonstrated that this arrangement has become outdated.…

To address these challenges and more, the time has come for Congress to grant the Copyright Office the autonomy it needs to successfully execute its mission by removing the Office from the Library and making the Register of Copyrights a Senate confirmed, Presidentially-nominated position. The Office should also be given authority over its own staff, budget, and IT systems so it can implement the forward-thinking IT modernization plan published by the Office in February 2016. The common-sense plan would allow it become “lean, nimble, results-driven, and future-focused” so that it can meet the needs of its customers. 

We’re excited that the House is taking steps to set free the Copyright Office from the thumb of the Library of Congress. It’s been well-documented that the Library of Congress has neglected the Copyright Office, for example failing to manage the IT investments promised to the office years ago. When the Library’s IT system crashed for over a week, it took down the Copyright Office's IT system as well leading to a loss of $650,000 in fees and causing major issues.

The Copyright Office needs autonomy to better serve its customers, so this move by Congress is much-needed and it comes at a critical time. The new Librarian of Congress – appointed by former President Obama - has said she plans to appoint a replacement to head the Copyright Office soon setting up a heated political battle as the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:

At a March 1 meeting that included Ms. Hayden and House and Senate committee leaders, lawmakers urged her to hold off on making the appointment, according to a person familiar with the matter. A week later, Ms. Hayden wrote to the lawmakers making it clear she was planning to go ahead with her appointment of the copyright chief in coming months.

Ms. Hayden said she recognized that the lawmakers “will be introducing bipartisan…legislation” in the House and Senate to make the copyright office job a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation.

However, she added, “I feel it is my obligation to ensure an efficient and effective Copyright Office to serve Congress and the wide variety of stakeholders.”

If only her rhetoric lived up to her word.

Female inventors, artists, and musicians are major contributors to the field of creativity and innovation. Some 9.8 million women own businesses in the United States generating $1.4 trillion for our national economy, and much of their success is built on the ability to bring creative works to market knowing there are legal protections in place. That’s why we need a well-functioning Copyright Office that’s ready for the challenges and opportunities of a 21st century.

We'll keep track of how this legislation progresses through Congress.

 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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