Keep Copyright in the Library

Why the Copyright Office belongs in the Library of Congress

May 1, 2017

Sara R. Benson

The fate of the US Copyright Office is far from certain. This is what we know: In October 2016, Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante resigned from her position, and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed an interim register. In December 2016, Hayden issued a call for feedback on how to best prioritize the role of the Copyright Office and the kind of expertise the public wishes to see in the new permanent register of copyrights. And in February 2017, US Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) reintroduced a bill that would move the office to the legislative branch.

The Copyright Office’s future has sparked debate and controversy, specifically regarding the best location for the office. As librarians, we must seize this opportunity to advocate in favor of keeping the office within the Library of Congress (LC) and not, as some lawmakers would have it, as an independent agency under their purview.

The framers of the Constitution understood that in order to foster creativity, copyright must delicately balance the rights of content creators, publishers, and consumers. LC was the obvious partner for copyright, proliferating a universal collection of all published works through the mandatory deposit system. As the number of copyrights grew, so did the LC collection. Though the library ceased collecting every work, its current collection of more than 162 million items endures as a robust archive of culture and scholarship open to all.

Libraries are a trusted, neutral space where anyone in the community can go for unbiased information about anything, including copyright. A core part of my job as copyright librarian is to educate professors, students, and other librarians about their rights as authors, the limits of fair use, the appropriate boundaries of Section 108 rights, and how to obtain appropriate permissions and licenses from copyright holders. It’s this neutrality that makes librarians natural allies of every party in the copyright relationship—even media companies—and it makes sense that the Copyright Office continue to be housed in a library.

The Copyright Office for the Digital Economy Act (H.R. 890), first introduced by Marino and cosponsored by Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) in 2015 and reintroduced this year, would allow the president to appoint a director for the copyright agency with input from a new bicameral congressional commission—a provision that could likely yield a candidate more apt to bend to political influence. The Librarian of Congress, who does not serve a particular constituency, is better suited to select the next register. She does not face reelection but is obligated to preserve the integrity of the office and uphold its service mission.

It’s this neutrality that makes librarians natural allies of every party in the copyright relationship—even media companies—and it makes sense that the Copyright Office continue to be housed in a library.

H.R. 890 will likely be well received by the House Judiciary Committee. Indeed, ranking members of that committee authored a proposal for this exact “reform” back in December 2016. In response, 42 copyright experts who work in academic libraries—myself included—signed a letter that urges the Copyright Office to remain within LC. “Copyright law and libraries do not have ‘competing interests’ and ‘different priorities,’” the letter states. “Rather, libraries in all their richness and complexity reflect and serve the range of values embodied in the Copyright Act.” Signatories also propose that copyright lawyers, scholars, and librarians serve on an advisory board that serves the office.

The effort to extract the Copyright Office from LC is just getting started. Now is a good time for librarians to contact their representatives and collectively respond to legislative initiatives. The ALA community is more than 56,000 members strong and, when united, has a real ability to influence national priorities.


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