Partisan Politics Won’t Cure What Ails the Copyright Office

Written by Ferras Vinh

This Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to markup the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act (H.R. 1695). The legislation would change how the director of the Copyright Office is chosen, subjecting the Register of Copyrights to the presidential appointment and Senate confirmation process. In CDT’s view, it would politicize the important work of the Copyright Office while not doing enough to incorporate necessary reforms to modernize the Office.

Subjecting the Register of Copyrights to the presidential appointment and Senate confirmation process…would politicize the important work of the Copyright Office while not doing enough to incorporate necessary reforms to modernize the Office.

By requiring the Register to go through the appointment and confirmation process, this legislation will only serve to introduce partisan politics into a non-partisan position. Currently, the Register is selected by the Librarian of Congress, providing a layer of insulation from political interests and allowing the director of the Office to focus on the mission of promoting “the Progress of Science and useful Arts” without undue influence. But under the provisions of H.R. 1695, the Register would have to go through the same increasingly polarized process reserved for Supreme Court nominees and Cabinet appointees. Consequently, the nature of the position itself may be transformed, from one that requires devotion to the advancement of knowledge to one that demands loyalty to a party platform.

Moreover, it is not at all clear what problem this legislation is intended to solve. The proponents of H.R. 1695 argue that this measure will ensure that the Register is “dedicated to serving all stakeholders in the copyright ecosystem.” However, there is no evidence that suggests that this particular reform is necessary. In CDT’s view, the Office has tried to carefully balance the interests of rightholders with those of libraries and their patrons. At the very least, it is unlikely that injecting partisan interests into the decisionmaking of the Office will improve upon this balance.

Ultimately, this bill only creates new problems while neglecting current problems in our copyright system. For example, as CDT has previously noted, the technological infrastructure of the Office needs to be modernized. The core functions of the Office are to register works and record the transfer of rights, but the Government Accountability Office has found that shortcomings within its system are substantial enough to impair the ability of the Copyright Office to carry out these functions. These challenges prevent the Office from effectively serving the public, and will continue to do so without more urgent and focused attention from Congress – regardless of how the next Register is chosen.

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