I know I just wrote about the Copyright Office. But right after publishing Friday’s post, I saw that Librarian Hayden did a rather inscrutable thing. She had the LOC publish a three-question survey, using Survey Monkey, seeking public comment on the ideal qualities for the next Register of Copyrights. Writing as a member of the public, and one who knows way more about copyright than most laymen and way less than all copyright experts, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not qualified to offer an opinion about who the next Register should be. And neither are most of you.
David Lowery at The Trichordist summed up this point beautifully when, upon learning Hayden’s intentions, he declared that “the internet” would be appointing Boaty McBoatface as the next Register (and you really need to respond to his poll). For those who missed the reference, Lowery is citing an ill-advised decision last Spring, by someone in the British government, to crowdsource the name of a $238 million polar research vessel. Now appropriately named in honor of the documentarian and historian Sir David Attenborough, “the internet” had managed to produce the top choice Boaty McBoatface, which officials unsurprisingly declined to use. This may seem like a laughable side-show story—and it is—until crowdsourcing goes beyond the prospect of naming a research vessel the RRS Boaty McBoatface all the way to nominating Dopey O’Looney to lead the scientific expeditions.
As a political decision, I can’t imagine this was the smartest move on Hayden’s part. When she dismissed Register Pallante in October—suddenly and without consulting the Judiciary Committee—this could not have gone over terribly well with those Members of Congress. And as mentioned in my last post, the House Judiciary Committee has now proposed that the Copyright Office function independent of the Library and that, henceforward, Registers should be appointed by Congress for a term of 10 years with an option to renew. So, I have to assume that Dr. Hayden’s use of Survey Monkey to crowdsource comments as part of her search for a new Register is only going to further rustle the jimmies of the Committee.
Beltway Baseball aside, though, these types of surveys have a way of creating an illusion of democratic engagement while yielding either uninformed input or just plain automated mischief. Readers might remember Fight for the Future’s brag in April about their alleged “crashing” of the Copyright Office server with over 100,000 comments on Section 512 of the DMCA. This kind of self-congratulatory powning of issues only serves to overshadow the importance of legitimate, informed debate. Not only would one be hard-pressed to find 100,000 Americans who could adequately explain the DMCA; but in that particular case, it looks as though FFTF was not diligent in confirming that respondents to its survey were even American citizens.
Substantively, it’s worth noting that we have about 100 years worth of history on Registers of Copyrights—history that a librarian of Dr. Hayden’s caliber ought to be able to access. Add to this the current perspectives of recent Registers as well as a manageable number of legal experts, including people like Google’s Fred von Lohman or William Patry, who once worked for the USCO. Then, of course, there’s the Judiciary Committee itself, which comprises some Members who have been working on copyright for 20 years or more.
Among these well-informed professionals, it’s hard to imagine how a general poll of the average citizen is going to provide much valuable insight on the best qualities the next Register should possess. More likely, this is just another feint at democratization—one that provides opportunity for organizations like FFTF, EFF, or PublicKnowledge to once again Spam the Monkey and declare victory based on the number of people they could get to click a button. As I say, I know more about copyright than most laymen and don’t deserve a seat at this table. I did answer the poll on The Trichordist, though, and selected as the most important quality in the next Register that he/she “Has a crane capable of launching deep-sea submersibles.”