Barbara Ringer: A Tribute in Celebration of Women’s History Month

March is Women's History Month

Photo Credit: iStock/Vitalii Abakumov

March is Women’s History Month, which according to its official website, is meant to “commemorat[e] and encourage[e] the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.”  No woman (and no one) has played a more vital role in American copyright law history than Barbara Ringer. Her official U.S. Copyright Office biography captures all of the essential details of her career. 

Barbara served two separate tours as the head of the U.S. Copyright Office.  She was Register of Copyrights from November 1973 until her retirement from federal service in May 1980.  In 1993, she returned to the Copyright Office to co-chair a study group (and author its study) on the future of the Copyright Office (the Librarian’s Advisory Committee on Copyright Registration and Deposit (ACCORD)). That led to her appointment by then-Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington to serve as Acting Register of Copyrights from November 1993 to August 1994.

The U.S. Copyright Office’s official biography notes that she was “one of the principal architects of the copyright revision bill, which was enacted into law on October 9, 1976, as the Copyright Act of 1976.” That biography further details her rise within the Office which she joined in 1949, the same year she graduated from the Law School of Columbia University. She was hired as an examiner, later moving through other positions to become assistant chief, then chief of the Examining Division and finally, Assistant Register in 1966.  “In each of these positions, she was intimately involved with the twenty-year program for the general revision of the U.S. copyright law.”

What is missing from this somewhat sterile official biography, even if it amply notes her titles and accomplishments, are the details and dimensions of the person many of us knew well.

Barbara had many passions far beyond copyright, most especially in the arts—a love of opera, “classic” films, books, and stage plays. She had an apartment across the street from Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., so she could frequent its productions.  She collected films and loved to have long conversations about favorites, including details about actors, screenwriters, and directors.  She incorporated the names of characters from her favorite movies into Copyright Office public materials, and she willed her collection of over 20,000 movies to the Library of Congress.  

However, most prominently missing from her official biography is any mention of her struggles as a woman to secure her first job in the government, or her fight and eventual lawsuit that resulted in her appointment as Register, after being passed over by the male-dominated hierarchy within the Library of Congress. 

In 1949, even with her Columbia law degree, she was unable to land a more sought-after government job because of the scarcity of jobs for and discrimination against women at that time in law firms and in judicial clerkships.  It was also during this time that World War II (male) veterans had government hiring preferences.  So, as a woman she was, in her own words, “steered” to the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office because all of the coveted government legal jobs in more “prestigious” agencies were taken—a fortunate turn for the copyright community. 

During her time in the Copyright Office, Barbara wrote some of the seminal studies on U.S. and international copyright law issues that formed the basis for U.S. law then and now – including participating as a key drafter of the Universal Copyright Convention (1955)—the “bridge” to the U.S.’s adherence to the Berne Convention.

Her longest lasting contribution to copyright was her participation in copyright revision (which began in 1955), leading to the passage of the 1976 Act.  Colleagues of Barbara’s have estimated (to me) that “at least 75%” of the text of the 1976 Act (i.e., the current law) was written by Barbara.  On this, all agree: she was, without a doubt, the principal drafter of the law, accompanied by key contributions from many others, not the least of which included Congressman Bob Kastenmeier, Registers Arthur Fisher and Abe Kaminstein, and General Counsel and Acting Register Abe Goldman, as well as many in the academic and private sectors (for example, Alan Latman). Also, during revision, with rare exception (e.g., Bella Linden who represented a variety of creative industry clients), Barbara was the only woman in the room. (For a recent conversation with six current prominent women in copyright, moderated by former Register of Copyrights Ralph Oman, visit ABA’s website.)

She also pressed for moral rights legislation before, during, and after Berne accession in 1989 (ultimately resulting in the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990) and was a key drafter of the Automatic Renewal Act of 1992, so authors would not lose protections for failing to renew older works even after enactment of the 1976 Act.  During her “return” visit as Acting Register, she also drafted the restoration of protection provisions (section 104A) in 1994, so that the rights of foreign authors would be recognized in the U.S., in accordance with international treaty obligations.

Throughout her entire career, Barbara fought passionately for the rights of authors and creators.  In fact, she ended her legal practice—after she left the Copyright Office in 1994—representing actors (at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG)), brokering the deal to reconcile their differences with the motion picture studios at the deliberations in 1999 at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on its proposed Audiovisual Performers Rights Treaty, once again showing off her remarkable negotiating skills.

Her passions and energies for social justice reached far outside of the copyright world in her support of civil rights and broader social justice reforms.  This included a willingness to fight for her own rights as well.  When she was passed over in 1971 for the job of Register by the “old boys’ network” at the Library of Congress, she sued on the basis of race and sex discrimination.  A hearing officer reviewing her case concluded that “a preponderance of evidence” established she had been denied the job “as the result of discrimination for reasons of sex and race.” The racial claims were made as the result of “her public advocacy of the rights of blacks in the Copyright Office” and her employment record also noted, disparagingly, her attendance at the seminal 1963 March on Washington.  She won her legal case, and ultimately, was appointed as the first female Register of Copyrights in 1973.  See Ringer v. Mumford, 355 F. Supp. 749 (D.D.C. 1973).

Her last role in the Copyright Office during 1993 and 1994 was to propose ways to “modernize” the Office, far ahead of her time, in the dawning digital age.  A decade before Google or Facebook existed, and decades before streaming services launched, she saw the opportunity for the Office’s database to regain relevance and prominence for online licensing.  Her proposals included moving to online registrations (which did not commence until 2007), and recordations (still a work in progress in 2021), and she made suggestions for vibrant digital licenses years before Creative Commons licenses or digital rights management issues came to fruition.

I was fortunate to meet her soon after my arrival at the Copyright Office in 1988, to learn copyright law from her, to work with her at the Office (during 1993 and 1994), but also to share her friendship for two decades.  That included a last memorable visit in her rural Virginia nursing home in late 2008, with then Register of Copyrights Marybeth Peters and Barbara’s Copyright Office colleague David Albee.  For hours she regaled the three of us with copyright law and Copyright Office stories and gossip.  We also talked about all of her myriad other interests in music, “old” movies, efforts at archival preservation of film and recorded sound materials, and personal stories.  What I remember most of that visit was enjoying, as always, her great sense of humor (and laughter), which was plentiful that day, and every day one was around her.

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