If you have paid attention to copyright news over the past few weeks, you have probably noticed that the a new bill to modernize and streamline the Copyright Office was introduced, passed by the House Judiciary Committee and is primed to be considered by the House when it returns from recess next week.
The bill, H.R. 1695, The Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017, changes the current process for selecting the head of the Copyright Office, which is currently selected solely by the Librarian of Congress, by elevating the position to a Presidential appointee with Senate confirmation. It also establishes a renewable ten-year term for the Register, similar to the term of the Librarian of Congress. The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee by an impressive, bipartisan 27 to 1 margin. It is now waiting for a floor vote, which is expected to happen soon after the Congress returns from recess on April 24. Fittingly, the bill could come up for a vote on World IP Day, which is April 26.
Despite the broad, bipartisan support, and the fact that the bill is the result of many years of public process, a small but vocal minority has tried to paint the bill as controversial. Many of the myths disseminated by this faction are easily discredited (check out Terrica’s brilliant blog post on the subject). A recent letter by a broad spectrum of creative industry groups and companies to members of Congress highlights the considerable positive effects this bill would have on our copyright system.
Considering the significant role copyright has grown to play in the US economy and culture, with copyright industries counting for more than $1.2 trillion (or over 7%) of our GDP and employing more than 5.5 million workers, it makes sense for the Register of Copyrights to be a Presidential appointee subject to Senate confirmation, in line with similar positions such as the Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office. By elevating the Register of Copyrights to the same level, H.R. 1695 would recognize the role and significance of copyright to the United States culture and economy.
However, the benefits would not only be cosmetic. By passing H.R. 1695, Congress would start the process of making the Copyright Office more accountable, efficient, and able to meet the needs of the modern economy. The bill would be an important first step in giving the Copyright Office greater autonomy over the organization and operations of the Copyright Office without having to balance the Office’s needs, resources and priorities with those of the Library of Congress. At the same time, by making the selection process more transparent and accountable, Congress would not only remove the uncertainty stemming from allowing the Librarian of Congress to appoint and remove Registers at will, behind closed doors, but also allow Congress and, consequently, the public, to openly review the qualifications of the candidates and inquire into their ideas for the future of the Office. Further, this bill would also restore the valuable direct line of communication to the Copyright Office that Congress has historically enjoyed for getting neutral, expert advice on copyright law and policy, but that was, unfortunately, severed by the Librarian last Fall.
The Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017 is the first step in improving and modernizing the Copyright Office. It is supported by groups ranging from unions to copyright holders, government accountability groups and former Registers of Copyrights. In short, it makes sense. And it’s time to make it happen.
Johannes Munter is a law student at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, DC. and an intern at the Copyright Alliance during the Fall/Winter 2016.