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Guild Commends Efforts to Increase Copyright Office Autonomy

Last week the House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approved the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act, H.R. 1695, an important first step in giving the U.S. Copyright Office the autonomy it needs to better serve the nation’s authors. The bill, which would make the Register a presidential appointee (confirmed by the Senate) with a renewable ten-year term, was approved March 29 by a vote of 27-1.

If enacted, the law would establish a selection panel, consisting of Congressional leaders and the Librarian of Congress, which would refer three potential nominees to the President. The President would select a nominee from the list to become Register of Copyrights upon Senate confirmation. The bill is likely to come to a full House vote soon. Until it’s passed, the Librarian of Congress retains the power to appoint and remove the Register of Copyrights.

Why does it matter who appoints the Register of Copyrights?

The issue of who appoints the Register of Copyrights is important because the Copyright Office is the sole government agency charged with serving the interests of individual creators. Throughout its history the Office has worked closely with authors and other artists on practical and policy-related matters. The Authors Guild, in particular, has a long history, going back a hundred years, of working with the Copyright Office on issues of importance to authors. As we’ve noted before, the Copyright Office needs a leader who is a proven copyright expert and will be responsive to the needs of the creative community. This new bill will make sure that happens, adding transparency to a selection process that, as it stands, is under the sole control of the Librarian of Congress.

While authors have much common ground with the library community, libraries are just one stakeholder in the diverse copyright community. The major library associations have advocated vociferously for reduced copyright protections in recent years, in some cases to the detriment of authors’ interests. As such, leaving the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress—an arrangement that’s a vestige of the late 19th Century—and keeping the Office subject to the Librarian’s supervision and review of copyright regulations can no longer be justified or tolerated.

While the Guild is sympathetic to the financial stresses that libraries are experiencing, and is very much on board with alleviating those stresses in some way, authors (and publishers as the investors in authors) should not bear the costs. We need a Copyright Office that continues to consider the interests of authors and the survival of the writing profession—something that only robust copyright laws can ensure.

Opposition to H.R. 1695

Meanwhile, the sole “nay” vote in the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), is leading an opposition to the bill in the House. Lofgren is the Congresswoman for Google’s district and a fierce opponent of policies that benefit copyright owners and the Copyright Office. Lofgren’s opposition seeks to stoke fear of presidential power and frames the bill as a personal attack on the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, stating that “H.R. 1695 takes the appointment away from Dr. Carla Hayden and gives it to President Donald J. Trump.”

That’s not what this bill is about, however, and every other member of the Judiciary Committee understands that. The bill has been two years in the making already; the idea to make the Register a presidential appointee was conceived long before Dr. Hayden became the Librarian or anyone thought that Donald Trump would be president. While there are genuine concerns about the current President’s ability to fill government vacancies, the Authors Guild and every other pro-creator organization that has weighed in on the matter are convinced that this bill provides fundamental changes to the Register-selection process necessary to secure the Office’s long-term effectiveness. The bill is a long overdue effort to begin bringing the U.S. Copyright Office out of the 19th century and into the 21st by giving copyright law and individual creators the place in the federal government they deserve. That’s why we went to D.C. last week and held over a dozen meetings with members of Congress and their staffers to voice our support for the bill.

What’s next

The Authors Guild thanks and applauds the members of the House Judiciary Committee—Chairman Goodlatte and Ranking Member Conyers in particular—for their approval of H.R. 1695, and for their work on crafting the legislation in recent weeks. It’s clear from the Committee’s support for this bill that Committee members understand the importance to the creative community of a fully modernized Copyright Office led by a vetted copyright expert who understands the needs of that community. This bill is a first step on that path. We look forward to what we hope is the bill’s swift passage by the House of Representatives, followed by the Senate.