Registers of Copyrights: 120 Years of Excellence in Service

This past Saturday marked 120 years since the appointment of the first Register of Copyrights, Thorvald Solberg, in 1897. Thirty years prior to his appointment, then-Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford began pushing for a change in the law, which would require copyright holders to send deposit copies of their work to the Library of Congress, in hopes of beating the competition—the Smithsonian Library—in the race for the title of America’s “National Library.” Back then, the Library of Congress was ranked just fifth among the nation’s largest collections.

Although Spofford’s push to amend the law was successful, he soon realized that he was in over his head. He quickly became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books, maps, photographs and music constantly being deposited with the Library and warned Congress “that its Librarian would soon be presiding over the greatest chaos in America.” So what did Congress do? They created a copyright department within the Library—and eventually, the Copyright Office—to handle all things copyright. Recognizing the need for someone with expertise to head the department, Thorvald Solberg, a “nationally known copyright authority” was appointed as Register of Copyrights, and the rest is history.

To date, there have been 12 Registers, and 6 Acting-Registers, all of whom were qualified to serve as head of the Copyright Office and as Congress’ expert advisor on copyright law and policy.

  • The very first Register, Thorvald Solberg, aided Congress in drafting the 1909 Copyright Act.
  • Under the second Register, William Lincoln Brown, the Copyright Office helped draft a bill “that would bring the United States statute on copyright into accord with the Rome revision of the Berne Convention.”
  • Arthur Fisher, the third Register, obtained the necessary funding from Congress and began what would become a 20-year process, in which the Copyright Office, alongside the House Judiciary Committee, “provided the groundwork for the general revision of the U.S. law that ultimately resulted in the 1976 Copyright Act.”
  • Some of the most prominent features of the 1976 Act were drafted under the direction of the sixth Register, Abraham Lewis Kaminstein.
  • Several other Registers have testified before Congress on policy matters, and Congress regularly calls on the Copyright Office for reports and studies on substantive copyright matters.
  • The eighth Register, Barbara Ringer, was the first woman to serve as Register of Copyrights, and “one of the principal architects of the copyright revision bill” which later became the Copyright Act of 1976. She was awarded “the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, the highest honor designated for extraordinary achievement in federal service” for her role in revising copyright.
  • Marybeth Peters, as the eleventh Register, “oversaw the implementation of important new laws, including the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”
  • Maria Pallante, the twelfth Register, “helped initiate a comprehensive congressional review of U.S. copyright law,” and drafted reports for Congress on policy matters including the making available right, orphan works, copyright small claims, and pre-1972 sound recordings.

It’s vital that the Copyright Office continue in this tradition of expert leadership and dedication to copyright, which is why bills like HR.1695 and S.1010—which propose making the Register a Presidential appointment, with Senate confirmation—are so important. You can read more about those bills here.

To the 12 Registers and 6 Acting-Registers, the copyright community thanks you for 120 years of excellence in service!

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