The U.S. Senate is about to consider mostly pointless legislation that would make the nation’s register of copyrights—the individual who heads the U.S. Copyright Office, officially a part of the Library of Congress—a presidential appointment that would be subject to Senate confirmation.
While the measure has earned praise from some in the content industry, including the Motion Picture Association of America, unless senators can find better ways to modernize our copyright system, they really should just go back to the drawing board.
The Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017 already cleared the U.S. House in April by a 378-48 margin. Under the bill and its identical Senate companion, the power to select the register would be taken away from Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden. Instead, the president would select an appointment from among three names put forward by a panel that includes the librarian, the speaker of the House and the majority and minority leaders of both the House and Senate. And the register would now be subject to a 10-year term with the option of multiple reappointments, like the Librarian of Congress.
The legislation is ostensibly the product of the House Judiciary Committee’s multiyear series of roundtables and comments on modernizing the U.S. Copyright Office. In addition to changes to the process of selecting the register, the committee had recommended creating a stakeholder advisory board, a chief economist, a chief technology officer, making information technology upgrades at the office, creating a searchable digital database of ownership information to lower transaction costs in licensing and royalty payments, and creating a small claims court for relatively minor copyright disputes.
Alas, while it’s billed as a “first step,” the current legislation gives up most of those more substantive reforms and instead amounts largely to a partisan battle over who will have the power to select the next register: Hayden, who was appointed by Barack Obama, or President Donald Trump.
Opponents argue the bill will make the register and the Copyright Office more politicized and vulnerable to capture by special interests, while ceding more power to the executive. They argue that vetting the register through the nomination process could delay modernization efforts. Hayden needs the position to be filled expeditiously to implement her modernization program, and Trump already faces a sizable confirmation backlog.
Meanwhile, proponents argue a more independent register, less tethered to the will of the Library of Congress, will make USCO more accountable. They say it will make the office run more efficiently and allow it to modernize. They also believe it will address important constitutional questions, such as the separation of powers and oversight by the president.
At the heart of these constitutional questions is the fact the Library of Congress has both significant legislative and executive functions. Housed within the legislative branch, it also sets royalty rates and rules on exemptions from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Critics have derided the Copyright Office for being slippery about whether it is serving a legislative or executive role, depending on who’s asking. The contention is that this unusual arrangement renders USCO a “constitutional chameleon.”
Of course, it is not uncommon for entities in one branch to perform the functions of another. The president has a role in the legislative process through his veto power. The International Trade Commission performs judicial functions, but is an independent agency housed within the executive branch. The federal government’s separation of powers is not absolute. But there does come a point where those lines become so blurred as to call the original classification into question. In that respect, Congress should consider taking certain functions—such as the Copyright Royalty Board or the Triennial Section 1201 Proceeding—out of the Copyright Office.
Some would propose moving the entire Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress and rendering it a standalone agency, which would elevate the register’s position to one of an officer of the United States. Under that highly controversial scenario, the Constitution’s Appointments Clause definitely would require the job be filled by the president. But for now, since the librarian still has ultimate authority over the substantive regulatory powers surrounding copyright, changing who appoints the register won’t change anything outside of a short-term political calculation of who the next register is.
The bottom line is that the current bill simply doesn’t do that much, good or bad. Making the position a presidential appointment is unlikely to speed up IT modernization efforts, at a time when the office has faced numerous setbacks and problems getting that IT infrastructure in place. The original policy proposal drafted by the House Judiciary Committee was a more comprehensive and substantial approach to modernization and many of its provisions were supported broadly. First step or not, this is a feeble try.
As the Senate considers the bill in the coming weeks, they should either amend the legislation so that it will do something to modernize copyright, or just jettison it entirely. As currently written, the bill serves no purpose, and Congress shouldn’t waste its time on it.
Sasha Moss is Technology Policy Manager for the R Street Institute