Should the Register of Copyrights be a presidential appointee?

| May 8, 2017 | Copyright Law

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 1695, the first step toward changing the reporting relationships of the Register of Copyrights. Currently, the Librarian of Congress appoints the Register. Under the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017, the Register would become a presidential appointee who would have to be confirmed by Congress.

Bipartisan groups of Representatives support each side of the argument, backed by their industry constituents. The House vote went 378 to 48.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, a Democrat, said “we want a Copyright Office that’s responsible to all stakeholders in the ecosystem. Core copyright businesses annually contribute more than $1.2 trillion to our nation’s economy.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, said it was a “commonsense measure” and a step toward modernizing the office. They were backed by the AFL-CIO, the Screen Actors Guild, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Copyright Alliance, the Software & Information Industry Association and some conservative political groups.

Opponents said those statements were too general to be considered a discussion of a specific bill. Some suspect the measure is retaliation against the current Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, for having fired Maria Pallante, the last official Register of Copyrights — a move that alarmed some industry groups.

There was fairly good reason for Pallante’s ouster. Many records from 1972 and earlier still have to be accessed by hand, and a report by the inspector general strongly criticized her spending $12 million over five years on a computer system that didn’t solve the problem. Moreover, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups had criticized her for kowtowing to Big Content on the SOPA anti-piracy bill and other issues.

“The bill does nothing to improve the functioning of the Copyright Office, nor to fix any of the serious problems with copyright law, including its excessive and unpredictable penalties,” the EFF said in a blog post.

“I’m sorry, it is about the Librarian,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California. “Dr. Carla Hayden is probably the most qualified Librarian of Congress who has ever served,” she said. “If we prevent her from appointing a new Register, that effort will be stalled, and that would be tragic.”

Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado slammed the bill’s attempt to push aside the Librarian of Congress. “Special interests will be involved in picking the person who makes decisions over copyright,” he argued. “Congress is choosing big powerful interests over consumers, over innovation, and over the little guy.”

Would Congress confirming each Register of Copyrights politicize the office and ensure it will be controlled by big content producers? Or would it merely reflect the increasing importance in the Internet age?