Deep Dive Into Why The Copyright Office Belongs In The Library Of Congress

from the it-belongs-in-a-library dept

I’ve got a deep dive story over at The Verge, taking an in-depth look at the fight over taking the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress. I’ve written some about that here, but if you want to look at the full history of what’s going on, and why this seemingly simple move could be a disaster for copyright on the internet, go take a read:

Supporters of this bill (and there are many) argue that the location of the Copyright Office within the Library of Congress is merely an ?accident of history,? brought about by the sixth Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who wished to turn the dilapidated and often ignored Library of Congress into a world-class institution with a comprehensive collection of all American created works. Spofford realized that by housing the copyright registration function within the Library, it would mean that everyone wishing to obtain a copyright would have to send a deposit copy, and the Library?s collection would magically grow. The Copyright Act of 1870 made this arrangement the law.

But the synergies between the Library and the Copyright Office go way beyond being merely a way to trick people into building the Library. Managing copyrights ? effectively a giant database of creative works ? is very much a librarian-centric job. Librarians are custodians of information, helping to catalog and organize it while also helping people research and find what they?re looking for. The Copyright Office today, like many old libraries, is filled with card catalogs.

It also details why this is so important:

Copyright itself has become a much bigger, and more important issue in the past few decades ? in large part thanks to the rise of the internet, and the conflicts that arose because of it. In 1978 the copyright law in the US changed to a mandatory system, whereby any new and creative work was given automatic copyright ? whether you wanted it or not ? for your life plus another 70 years. Prior to that, the system had been opt-in only, where you had to register and follow certain formalities to obtain a copyright, that could, at a maximum last 56 years.

This massive expansion of what creative works were covered by copyright only slightly predated the rise of the greatest tool for the creation of new content ever known: the internet. And the internet exists because of computers, which are basically giant copying machines. Every time a song or photo or video is sent across the internet, a copy is made. A copyright system built for a different time, but massively expanded, ran headlong into a world of connected, copying computers, and a lot of lawyers have made a lot of money trying to adapt our copyright law to a culture-defining copying system.


The internet is an astoundingly great tool for distributing content. But it does that by copying content, and often stripping out the need for gatekeeper middlemen. And that certainly upset a number of industries whose entire business model was about playing the role of the gatekeeper, and extracting massive sums of money while determine who was allowed through. The internet made at least some of that obsolete, but in a way that just didn?t easily match up with copyright.

And the Copyright Office, historically, has not welcomed of the rise of the internet. Much of the leadership of the Copyright Office over the past few decades has come out of legacy industries ? publishing, recorded music, movies ? that had viewed copyright as a tool to serve a few big industries. The office has been accused of systemic bias from the revolving door of industry executives and lawyers going into the Office, or leaving the Office to go back to those same industries.

There’s a lot more in the piece as well, including some discussion on the new Librarian of Congress effectively firing the Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante. I wrote the piece before also finding out about the massive failed IT project under Pallante, which provided an even greater rationale for the firing… and (importantly) much, much bigger reasons to have Congress reject this plan to effectively give more autonomy to the Copyright Office and to remove the oversight of the Librarian of Congress.

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Comments on “Deep Dive Into Why The Copyright Office Belongs In The Library Of Congress”

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Anonymous Coward says:

If only you could use your grown up voice on this blog like you did in that post. And linking to things other than TD was a nice touch. I totally disagree with almost everything you said there, of course, but it’s nice to see you can act responsibly when you want to. Hey, you didn’t call Pallante a “liar.” Good on ya, Mike. You should bring that version of yourself here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Up Next:

Trademarks as such serve a fine purpose (though it would need some adjustments to really shine).

Patents is a bit I/O. For now it needs a severe reduction in patentability by increasing the levels needed of non-obviousness (many patents do not show much above the obvious for a person “in the field”. I.e. Software patents and DNA patents are obvious by mathematical standards, which is a very basic thing to evaluate from the PO), massively increase the levels needed of novelty (Most patents are based on science from the 19th and up to the 70s of the 20th century. The ideas have mostly modern vocabulary and if you are lucky, they provide simple combinations. This one is to avoid the 200-600 patents we see implemented in creation of each of several modern day smart-phones i.e.) and more focus on usefulness (To avoid overbroad patents suitable for trolling).

It is not likely going to happen as many are still tracking the number of patents as the “be all, end all”-number for innovation and sees the difference in numbers across regions as a comparative number of how much innovation is happening, despite the differences in quality.

Anonymous Coward says:

If the problem is that the Copyright Office has people coming and going from private industry ostensibly to assist those industries, why not fix that?

Both the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office are failed institutions. Having two failed organization stay together doesn’t actually address or fix the problem. Does it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

No, but separating them makes even less sense by that logic…

The industry ownership is a the core of copyright. Without industry people to interpret the law, copyright becomes far too much gray area and far too complex to understand. Thus it is a conondrum to suggest “dealing” with the open doors to deal with the overreach, when the overarching laws created by the industry needs constant reinterpretation to make sense and copyright needs to get exported to make it easier to export the audiovisual content to the underentertained part of the world.

James Paul Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I question your premise. The Library of congress is not a “failed” instiution. And, in fact, the current Librarian of Congress is a good way to fix the private industry revolving door. By hiring an actual Librarian with proven history modernizing Libraries, the stage has been set for a more functional Library of Congress. And, very quickly, the librarian, understanding the needs of the copyright office, found the industry insider unsuitable to the task.

Retaining the copyright office as an arm of the Library of congress makes sense. The ‘fix’ is to put actual librarians in charge of the library, like we put actual judges on the supreme court. This would allow the Librarian of congress to choose heads of the copyright office that maximize the synergies of the two departments, and improve the whole process.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Content makers? the RIAA and MPAA companies are in the business of buying up the content made by others, and they want copyright to protect their investment for ever and a day. They are the ones pushing to get the copyright office out from under the new Librarian who has a much more balanced view of what copyright should do..

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps you could give a good reason why it should be located anywhere else, or on it’s own? You know, to respond to the several good reasons Mike gave for why it’s good to have it there.

Of course these things ‘could’ be accomplished without this connection. Anything can be accomplished without it! That doesn’t add anything to this discussion. What good does it do to not have it there?

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