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May 2 / Clayton Hayes

HR 1695 and Changes in the Copyright Office

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve H.R. 1695 by a margin of 378 – 48. This resolution implements significant changes in how the U.S. Copyright Office function and how the office of Register of Copyrights will be filled; many see these changes as negatives for libraries and higher education.

In the past, the Register of Copyrights was appointed by the Librarian of Congress. The new process of appointment is slightly more involved. A panel consisting of

  •  the Speaker of the House
  • the President pro tempore of the Senate
  • the Majority and Minority leaders of the House and Senate
  • the Librarian of Congress

will decide on a list of three nominees for the position, and the President will then select the Register of Copyrights from among those three nominees.

Copyright has always been a bit of a balancing act as it is meant to support creativity in two ways: First, copyright motivates content creation by supporting content creators by, in simple terms, providing a reasonable guarantee that the creator of a work will have control over what happens to that work and who makes money off of it. Second, because copyright is limited to a fixed number of years, it encourages the reuse and adaptation of a work once it is no longer under copyright and enters the public domain. Copyright terms in the U.S., as many of you already know, have repeatedly been increased in length, from only 28 years in 1790 up to (at present) the lifetime of the work’s creator plus 70 years.

Longer copyright terms are favored by many creators, yes, but they are also favored by industries that rely on intellectual property to function: movies, television, music, and publishing, to name a few. The advent of digital content and distribution allows these industries to profit from the works that they produce for a very long time, essentially for as long as the works are protected under copyright. These industries are also very politically active and lobby extensively; that is the point that has many concerned over this change in the Copyright Office.

The new “panel” approach means that the new appointment process will be much more politicized than it has been previously. Aside from the Librarian of Congress, which is a presidential appointment, the panel as outlined in H.R. 1695 consists entirely of elected officials coming from the House or the Senate. These positions are much more susceptible to the lobbying by the large IP industries mentioned above, and it raises concerns over who the Register of Copyrights will really be serving under this new approach.

For more information on the controversy surrounding H.R. 1695, Ars Technica published an excellent article on the issue last week after the resolution passed out of the House Judiciary Committee.