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A tribute to an outstanding Register of Copyrights

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Dr. Carla Hayden, the newly installed Librarian of Congress, removed Maria Pallante from the position of Register of Copyrights on Friday, Oct. 21. The move was sudden, resulting in the extensive speculation over the decision that we have seen since. Lost amid this speculation is the fact that Pallante served the nation well for nearly six years as an outstanding Register of Copyrights.

Over the course of my 30 years in Congress — and especially during my tenures as chairman and ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet — I had the opportunity to work with several Registers, all of whom I relied upon for independent, expert counsel. As Register, Pallante continued that fine tradition, bringing a strong vision for the future of the Copyright Office and the American copyright system in the rapid technological advances of the 21st century.

{mosads}Register Pallante’s vision for the Copyright Office was to serve its customers first — both those looking to register works and those seeking to retrieve registration information. She pursued that vision with a focus I do not recall in recent memory. She sought to develop a registration database that is interoperable with numerous private-sector -rights databases, that is searchable for image recognition, and that provides cradle-to-grave information on the chain of title of works through connection to a digitized recordation database. These ambitious goals require a specialized staff, sufficient budget and a forward-looking IT plan. And Register Pallante saw early on what the Government Accountability Office would make public years later: that the Library of Congress’s IT system was neither built for — nor up to the task of — meeting the public’s needs for a comprehensive and customer-friendly copyright database.

On policy issues, Register Pallante took a similarly forward-looking approach, calling for a once-in-a-generation review of the American copyright system that House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) was quick to pursue. She did not shy away from the tough questions or controversial issues. And her approach was even-handed, backing more effective enforcement measures to address online piracy, both domestically and internationally, alongside expanded copyright exceptions and limitations.

Impressively, under her leadership, the Copyright Office produced for Congress each year of her tenure an average of two major policy reports, many of which are now the basic text on the respective subjects. Not everyone agreed with all her policy recommendations, as is to be expected in a field with such diverse stakeholders. But often even her fiercest critics could not produce more convincing analyses, and instead some resorted to unfounded attacks against the entire Copyright Office. But Register Pallante did not bow to such tactics, maintaining her intellectual integrity.

Her other accomplishments may have been less high-profile but were no less important. She led the Office’s effort to update the massive 1,200-page Copyright Office Compendium for the first time in three decades to the benefit of all who use the registration system. She brought in a new generation of top legal and policy experts, as well as hired the first-ever chief technology officer within the Copyright Office. If not for that person, the entire Copyright Office registration database would have been lost forever when the Library’s routine maintenance went horribly wrong, bringing down the Copyright Office electronic registration system and other Library websites for two weeks in 2015.

Register Pallante recognized that the equally important but sometimes conflicting missions and priorities of the Library and the Copyright Office were hindering the Office’s ability to meet its constitutionally rooted and congressionally mandated responsibilities to the public, copyright holders and Congress. And so she took the bold step of publicly endorsing Copyright Office independence from the Library.

In Washington, we have become accustomed to bureaucratic-style leadership that avoids tackling the tough problems and passes the buck. Instead, Register Pallante did exactly what we hope from our best public servants: She saw a problem, recognized her duty to fix it and forced us to consider the hard choices. Some have suggested that this stand was the real reason for her dismissal and cast it as disloyalty to the parent agency. But recognizing real problems and speaking truth to power isn’t disloyalty; it’s at the heart of the public discourse on which democracy depends. And it is particularly important for an institution charged with providing objective, expert advice to Congress, the courts, and agencies on an area of law that underlies millions of U.S. jobs and more than $1 trillion in GDP.

Whatever the basis for Dr. Hayden’s decision to remove Register Pallante, we should not overlook that Maria Pallante served the Copyright Office, the Library of Congress, the Congress and the nation with rare vision, dedication and fairness. We can only hope that her successor has those qualities in equal measure. 

Berman served in Congress from 1983-2013 and is former chairman of the Intellectual Property Subcommittee.

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