House bill would further politicize the Register of Copyrights

In January we urged the new Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, to make sure that whoever she appoints as the next Register of Copyrights should put the public at the center of the work of the Copyright Office. Currently the Register leads the Copyright Office, an institution that sits within the Library of Congress. The Register is a key position responsible for—you guessed it—copyright registrations, and also influences copyright policy in the United States.

But now, a bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would alter the role of the Register, and possibly the future of the Copyright Office itself. Last week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) introduced H.R. 1695, the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017. The bill would give the President—not the Librarian of Congress—the power to appoint the Register of Copyrights. The position would be subject to Senate confirmation and would last for a term of 10 years (with the possibility of renewal).

There is a lot of work to be done in upgrading and modernizing the important processes around the Office’s strategic priority “to make copyright records easily searchable and widely available to authors, entrepreneurs, and all who need them”. It’s unclear how changing the confirmation and reporting structure of the Register would serve that priority. But it is clear that the shift could further politicize the role, and thus embolden the political agendas of several of the largest publishing associations and entertainment industry businesses that are currently cheering this legislation.

The mission of the Library of Congress is “to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.” The Register of Copyrights should continue to report to the Librarian of Congress. Moving this position out from underneath the public interest mission of the Library will only continue to nudge the balance of copyright toward serving the interests of the incumbent players, and will ignore new creators and users.