With Register Pallante Out, What Now?

Photo by apparen.
Photo by apparen.

Creators, copyright advocates, and many policymakers were taken aback by last Friday’s announcement that the new Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden removed Maria Pallante from the position of Register of Copyrights. The decision was officially described as a reassignment for Pallante to the role of senior advisor for digital strategy, which Pallante has declined.  Associate register Karyn Temple Claggett stepped in as acting Register and the LOC is conducting what it calls a “nationwide search” for a new candidate.

Pallante’s ouster comes just barely six weeks after Hayden’s official start at the LOC, and rights holders and artists are justifiably anxious about the decision itself and the suddenness with which the change took effect.  Meanwhile, anti-copyright voices, who view Dr. Hayden as a fellow ideologue—many librarians are generally critical of copyright—were quick to begin writing the narrative in the twitterverse that their new champion is “cleaning house” by removing a Register who has been the target of organized criticism almost since the day she took office in 2011.

Organizations like the EFF and Public Knowledge, along with several anti-copyright bloggers have at various times accused Pallante of favoring the interests of large, corporate rights holders. This accusation is contrary to Pallante’s actual record and background, but that’s of little consequence in the grand scheme because the ongoing, negative PR campaign was really aimed at copyright law itself. Any Register who believes in the importance of copyright would have been targeted in the same way as Pallante; she just happened to become the face of copyright during a period when the critics amped up their industry-funded rhetoric to a new level.

One of the more concerning aspects of this unprecedented move is that those who are well-versed in Pallante’s background and policy recommendations know that she emphasized the interests of individual authors and the intended social benefits of copyright over the major rights holders whom she is accused of indulging. I cited one example of this in my post about the lawsuit filed by EFF arguing the unconstitutionality of DMCA Section 1201. That the EFF chose to litigate an 18-year-old law at the same time that Pallante herself was advocating policy changes which pragmatically addressed some of EFF’s exact concerns is at odds with the portrait of her as an industry-biased “maximalist.”  That the EFF also happened to file its 1201 suit at about the right moment for it to become one of Dr. Hayden’s first headaches is a curiosity as well.

I think there is little doubt that the organizations and individuals crowing on social media about the defenestration of Pallante see it as a step toward dramatically limiting, or even abolishing, copyright law.  Claims like Public Knowledge’s Friday afternoon tweet that this is, “A great opportunity to bring balance back to the Office’s policy work” are pure spin. Pallante was balanced, often siding with interests other than rights holders; but balance is not the honest goal of organizations like Public Knowledge, which was directly responsible for last month’s hatchet job against the CO when it issued a “report” composed of exaggerations and lies of omission.

Hayden’s Thinking and the Future of the Copyright Office

Whether Pallante’s dismissal represents an ideological split with Hayden on copyright or internal politics or any number of factors that may never be publicly known, the move may indicate that Dr. Hayden envisions taking a more hands-on role in copyright policy than past Librarians have done. If so, this whiplash firing of the Register ought to raise at least a few congressional eyebrows in context to the now three-year-long discussion on the prospect of separating the Copyright Office from the LOC.  Pallante’s unexpected and unprecedented removal could serve to emphasize for lawmakers the rationale for that separation. In essence, although the new Librarian has acted within the scope of her authority, this decision and its timing may reflect a significant lack of deference for the historic basis of that authority.

As explained in a previous post, the Librarian of Congress is not, and has never truly been, the nation’s copyright expert. The formation of the Copyright Office within the Library in 1897 came about as a largely functional relationship between the registration of works and the need to grow the collection.  It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century, particularly with the passage of the 1909 Act, that copyright law started to become as complexly woven into the American economy as it is today.  As copyright law evolved along with the expansion of technology, the Register increasingly served as a national advisor on policy—well beyond oversight of the original registration function.

While the copyright registration and deposit process remains a major source of material for the Library’s collection; with the advent of digitization, there arises a natural tension between a Librarian’s ambition to make the collection accessible online and the Register’s responsibility to see that rights holders who deposit copies with the LOC remain protected. For instance, if the LOC were to make full-length, high-quality works available online for free, this would clearly harm the licensing opportunities for those works; and this, in turn, would dissuade authors from registration and deposit. In this context, it is noteworthy that Pallante was “offered” the “digital strategy” job.  As one knowledgeable colleague, speaking on background, suggested, “This is a firing in disguise, offering Pallante the one job she would be inclined to tell the Librarian she cannot do.”

So, although there remains a practical relationship between the registration process and the Library collection, there is no hard-and-fast reason, especially from a policy perspective, why the Register must continue to operate under the purview of the Library. In fairness, Dr. Hayden may not be the anti-copyright ideologue that folks at EFF, PK, et al assume her to be, but the timing and tone of Pallante’s removal has unquestionably been viewed as a slap in the face to creators.  If indeed that slap is a signal that Hayden considers herself the new “copyright sheriff in town,” that could easily trigger both rights holders and members of the Judiciary Committee to decide that indeed it is time for these two very different authorities to operate independent of one another.  After all, balance is what we get when opposing but equal forces are required to work together.

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