Copyright office continues to be an integral part of the broader Library of Congress

Copyright office continues to be an integral part of the broader Library of Congress
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Today, the Library of Congress is the biggest library in the world, holding more than 38 million books, 70 million manuscripts, 14.8 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 3.6 million recordings and more. It is also the rightful home of the U.S. Copyright Office.

Yet powerful entertainment lobbyists from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are trying to overhaul the entire system in their own self-interest. Legislation being debated at a Senate hearing this week would remove the Copyright Office from the library, instead making the Register of Copyrights another presidential appointment, subject to the whims of special interests.

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While most people don’t realize that the copyright office is housed within the Library of Congress, this partnership makes sense and should continue, allowing the agencies to share leadership, resources and information. After all, every copyright holder must deposit copies of a work if they wish to register it — an important method for the library to build up its collection.

To support the preeminent institution of American culture and learning, in 1870 Congress mandated that two copies of all copyrighted materials must be deposited in the Library of Congress.

That means two copies of all copyrighted materials — from books, maps and sheet music to films and sound recordings — are processed by the library every day, every year. In 2017 alone, the library registered more than 450,000 copyrights. The library’s employees are experts when it comes to cataloging works; managing this massive catalog of copyrighted works is what librarians do best. Those are staggering numbers — part of a carefully calibrated process that the Library of Congress has worked for centuries to develop and perfect.

A couple years ago the library had fallen behind with the technological advancements necessary for its role as leader of the nation’s copyright system. For instance, in March 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released two scathing reports criticizing the library for its severe technological deficiencies. Then in 2017 a leaked report from the Inspector General revealed that the previous Register, Maria Pallante, had wasted $11.6 million on a new computer system and misled both Congress and the Librarian about the project’s progress.

These events happened three years ago under previous leadership at both the library and the Copyright Office. Today, the two offices are making substantial progress thanks to new leadership from Carla Hayden as librarian and Karyn Temple’s promotion to Register. Their partnership is succeeding as the library and copyright Office move forward with much-needed modernization efforts and technological upgrades.

The Copyright Office’s weak past performance and technology struggles should not be rewarded with more autonomy, but instead answered with continued oversight from the library. MPAA and RIAA’s attempt to create an independent register is a legislative solution in search of an actual problem. It won’t fix anything, just the opposite. It will result in more costs for taxpayers, more disruptions for content creators and delays in the implementation of technological upgrades already in the works.

The Librarian is also an important check of past one-sided behavior by the register. Rather than focus on the broader public interest, past registers have been quoted as saying they represent the interest of rights holders. That would be like an FCC commissioner saying they represent the interests of telecom companies or an SEC Commissioner saying they represent the investors. They do not; they represent the broader public interest. A modernized copyright office must be responsive and balanced to the interests of all stakeholders.

New technologies and media have emerged over the past three decades, expanding the copyright system beyond the traditional rights holders to include small businesses, entrepreneurs, online creators, content licensees, technology platforms, users, educators and more. The Register of the Copyright Office should seek to encourage — not inhibit — free speech while still protecting copyright authors in its rule-making capacity under Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Previously, the librarian had to be called in to undo ill-fated rules preventing disability access, and Congress had to be called in to pass legislation to undo the copyright office’s narrow-minded decision to prohibit consumers from unlocking their cell phones.

If the register became a presidential appointment and the copyright office was removed from the library’s purview, the powerful content industry would have yet another tool to enact more and more restrictive copyright policies. Trade associations like MPAA and RIAA already tried to block Carla Hayden’s appointment to the library because of her background as a librarian, and they’re still upset that Maria Pallante was removed from the position as register.

The birth of the Library of Congress goes back to the Founding Fathers. They believed strongly in the importance of learning and access to knowledge. Today’s Library of Congress fulfills the dream of men like George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and it’s continuing to grow and modernize for the digital age. To maintain the progress at the library and America’s overall cultural advancement, it is in the best interest of the public, creativity and innovation that the Copyright Office continues to be an integral part of the broader Library of Congress.

Joshua Lamel is the Executive Director of the Re:Create Coalition.