New Bill Might Politicize US Copyright Office: Register Of Copyrights to be a Presidential Appointee

With a search for the next Register of Copyrights currently underway, a bill introduced in Congress on March 23, 2017, would let President Donald Trump make that appointment, rather than Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced the “Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017” (H.R. 1695), which would give the President the power to appoint the Register of Copyrights for a 10-year, renewable term, subject to Senate confirmation. The President would also have the power to fire the Register at any time. Currently the Register of Copyrights is appointed by, and serves at the sole discretion of, the Librarian of Congress, who oversees the Copyright Office.

This new development comes after a thorough review of US copyright law started in 2013 by Chairman Goodlatte. As part of the copyright review, the House Judiciary Committee held 20 hearings, which included testimony from 100 witnesses. This particular bill was the product of bipartisan and bicameral discussions, according to a press release from the House Judiciary Committee. Besides Conyers, the bill has 29 co-sponsors, including eight Democrats.

The previous Register, Maria Pallante, was removed in October 2016 by Hayden, who has authority over the Copyright Office. Although the position has no lawmaking authority, it does come with significant power to shape policy. The tech and media industry, in particular, is hotly debating the bill’s policy implications as Congress begins its long-awaited copyright reform process. Specifically, media business lobbyists favor the idea of a presidential appointee, as they had worried that Hayden might replace Pallante with someone more skeptical of copyright protections.

“Time is of the essence when it comes to the selection process for a new Register of Copyrights,” said Goodlatte, Conyers, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), in a joint statement.

However, critics vociferously argue that the appointment will be susceptible to special interests and funded agendas. Some also remain unclear why legislators are calling for the revision with such urgency, or why they are seeking to allot the executive branch expanded power in the copyright realm. A statement issued by the Library Copyright Alliance, a national group representing more than 120,000 libraries and serving over 200 million patrons annually, called the proposal “mystifying” and urged Congress to reject the bill. “Why Congress would voluntarily cede its own confirmed Librarian’s authority to select and oversee a key Congressional advisor on copyright matters to the Executive Branch is hard to imagine,” the statement reads.

A copy of the introduced bill can be found here.

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