Reality Check – H.R. 1695

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H.R. 1695, The Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act, passed in the House of Representatives last week with a vote of 378-48.  As the bill moves to the Senate, many of the usual suspects in anti-copyright circles have vowed to fight its full passage into law. By “fight,” I assume these groups will repeat a bit louder the same fictions they began saying when the bill was introduced.  I have already responded to the assertion that this organization change will adversely politicize the role of Register; but there is also at least a muttering insinuation out there that 1695 is somehow a rebuke of Librarian Hayden herself.  And because politics breeds narratives that often have little to do with the issues or the record, I thought a review of the record as a simple timeline might be helpful.

1897 —  As indicated in at least two posts, the creation of the Copyright Office within the Library of Congress dates back 120 years and was predicated on a function very different from the role of the office in a modern—let alone digital—world.

1970s—Present — Unofficial discussions among policymakers and copyright experts about the proper structure and location of the USCO have been happening for decades.

Summer 2013 — The House Judiciary Committee begins preliminary hearings as part of its comprehensive review of copyright in the United States.

Fall 2014 — The Committee accepts recommendations on restructuring the Copyright Office, and among these are proposals to make the Register a presidential appointee just like the Librarian.

June 4, 2015 — Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA) and Tom Marino (R-PA) present a discussion draft of the CODE Act, which includes a provision to make the Register a presidential appointee.

June 10, 2015 — The LOC announces that Librarian James A. Billington will step down as of January 1, 2016.

February 24, 2016 — President Obama announces his intention to nominate Dr. Carla Hayden as Librarian of Congress. Anti-copyright voices respond almost immediately with ebullient expectations that Hayden might reshape copyright policy.

August 2016 — Anti-copyright organizations declare that the FCC’s “Set-Top” Box proposal has “nothing to do with copyright.” Because this view does not square with Register Pallante’s testimony on the matter, these groups cite this difference of opinion as “more evidence” that Pallante is beholden to corporate rights holders.  Neither Pallante’s remarks on the FCC proposal nor her official testimony on a wide range of issues supports these criticisms.

September 2016 — Dr. Hayden assumes her position as Librarian of Congress. In that same month, Public Knowledge appears to be leveraging the FCC-related momentum when they release a “report” comprising innuendo, anecdote, and opinion to accuse Pallante and the entire USCO of “regulatory capture” by major rights holders.

October 2016 — Register Pallante is effectively fired by Dr. Hayden, sparking much speculation in the blogosphere. Regardless of what really occurred at the LOC, Pallante’s ouster is portrayed by anti-copyright organizations and pundits as Dr. Hayden “cleaning house.”

December 2016 — Dr. Hayden announces plans to use Survey Monkey to crowdsource input regarding the next Register of Copyrights. In all likelihood, this move is not well-received by Congress in light of the fact that the House Judiciary Committee had begun to consider making the Register a presidential appointee at least sixteen months prior to Dr. Hayden’s nomination.

March 23, 2017 — Co-sponsors Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) along with 29 bi-partisan cosponsors introduce H.R. 1695.  The bill passes out of committee with a vote of 27-1 then passes the full House 378-48 on April 26, 2017.

Following their standard MO, institutions and individuals opposed to copyright—and who might have been hoping that Dr. Hayden would reshape policy—have tried to portray 1695 as a fast-track, Trumpian power-grab from the new Librarian. This false narrative is further distorted by the optics—namely that Dr. Hayden is the first African American woman to hold the position.

But the record is what it is. There is nothing fast-track about reorganizing an office that opened more than a century ago under radically different circumstances.  And the on-record discussions and plans now manifest as H.R. 1695 predate by more than a year both the nomination of Dr. Hayden and any clear expectation that Donald Trump would become President.

The bill was introduced by a 26-term Representative who was present at Selma, was a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and who introduced the legislation to make Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday a national holiday; so any implications of racism in some kind of Trump v Hayden story are as ideologically absurd as they are chronologically impossible.

Finally, the primary motivation for making the USCO independent of the LOC is that they simply perform two distinct functions.  Any hope on the part of anti-copyright interests that Dr. Hayden–or any Librarian–would dramatically reshape copyright policy solely by virtue of the organization chart, is whimsical at best.  Such an incoherent approach would undermine both the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress.

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