U.S. industries that depend heavily on copyright—which protects books, movies, films, photos, music, as well as software from unauthorized reproduction by third parties—are an important key to American economic growth and innovation.
These industries yield hundreds of billions of dollars in sales and licensing revenues each year. In 2015 alone, American copyright-related industries generated $1.2 trillion of gross domestic product, according to a 2016 study.
What’s more, a 2016 Commerce Department report found that the copyright sector generated 5.6 million high-paying jobs in 2015, up from 5.5 million jobs the year before.
Unfortunately, the effectiveness of our copyright system is clouded by serious problems at the U.S. government agency that registers copyrights—the Copyright Office, an appendage of the Library of Congress.
As reported last August in The Daily Signal, the Copyright Office is outdated and so lacking in personnel, funds, and technology that it is ill-equipped to carry out its mission of protecting intellectual property.
Current denial of service problems and long delays in responding to copyright applications—sometimes lasting eight to 14 months—are visible manifestations of these administrative problems.
What’s worse, the Copyright Office currently is leaderless. Carla Hayden, who was confirmed as librarian of Congress last summer, abruptly fired the well-respected Copyright Office head, Maria Pallante, in October 2016.
That move provoked substantial criticism, including from former Copyright Office chiefs and members of Congress such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.
Although the Copyright Office is currently limping along at a snail’s pace and lacks direction, a key first step in modernizing the office is within grasp.
On March 23, Goodlatte and Conyers introduced the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act. The bill would take away from the librarian of Congress the unilateral power to hire and fire the register of copyrights, as Hayden had done.
The legislation enjoys broad, bipartisan support in both chambers, receiving 29 bipartisan co-sponsors in addition to Goodlatte and Conyers.
The legislation would change the way the register of copyrights is hired and fired, removing such decisions from the hands of the librarian. It provides for the register of copyrights to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate for a 10-year term, subject to renewal upon presidential re-nomination and Senate confirmation.
Under the bill, the president would choose from a list of three recommended candidates submitted by a committee of members of Congress and the librarian of Congress. The president would have authority to remove the register for cause.
Additionally, under the bill, the Copyright Office would receive its own budget.
This measure represents an important first step toward a more important goal: making the Copyright Office independent of the Library of Congress and modernizing the Copyright Office. The Copyright Office needs an enhancement of its resources and capabilities to serve the needs of the intellectual property community.
Crucially, the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office have different objectives. Whereas the library functions as a research institution and operates to make information accessible, its aims are not aligned with those of the Copyright Office, which are to protect intellectual property rights and encourage creativity.
Allowing the librarian of Congress to dictate the selection and retention of the register of copyrights interferes with the Copyright Office’s ability to operate independently and efficiently.
Rather than leaving the fate of the register in the hands of a research institution with no specialization or interest in protecting intellectual property through copyright law, the newly proposed structure would encourage the selection of a highly qualified register who must earn the approval of the president and Senate.
Industry and business groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Chamber of Commerce have praised the proposal, noting the financial importance of the copyright industry in promoting jobs, creativity, and innovation and envisioning stronger copyright protections as a result of the bill.
This important improvement would constitute a necessary first step as part of a broader program for modernizing copyright operations.
But more needs to be done, as acknowledged in a joint statement by Goodlatte, Conyers, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., lauding the measure.
We remain absolutely committed to working on modernizing the Copyright Office. Reforms being considered include public advisory committees, improvements to Copyright Office systems for data inputs and outputs, and copyright ownership transparency. However, time is of the essence when it comes to the selection process for a new register of copyrights …
With the current register serving only on an acting basis, now is the time to make changes to ensure that future registers are transparent and accountable to Congress. We must ensure that any new register is a good manager and fully qualified to lead and make this office more operationally effective as he or she continues to directly advice Congress on copyrights. The next register of copyrights should be dedicated to serving all stakeholders in the copyright ecosystem.
Building on this positive first step, the most necessary and important objective is making the register and Copyright Office fully independent of the librarian of Congress. Past bipartisan support for such proposals lends hope to the goal of Copyright Office independence.
So long as Congress chooses an option that achieves independence for the Copyright Office, it will move toward copyright modernization and securing stronger protections for intellectual property rights.