Even under normal circumstances, anyone can be forgiven for missing the memo that by the end of this month, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, will make her pick for the new Register of Copyrights. The process has been going for so long that I assume that at this stage Dr. Hayden has her choices down to a handful of candidates or fewer on the shortlist. And while I do not know who the candidates are or, therefore, anything about their views on copyright, I do know that there remains a substantial effort by well-funded parties to alter the foundational principles of American copyright law. And not in the interest of creators or society in general.
Ever since the internet revolution promised to “make the world a better place,” the aggressive headline adopted by copyright’s most prominent critics has been that “copyright is broken” and needs “rebalancing” in the digital age. Unfortunately, this egalitarian sounding notion has proven to be insidiously unbalanced, skewed toward the interests of major internet platforms to the continued detriment of authors of creative works. Especially independent authors.
By any sensible observation, the big internet companies are doing just fine, while creators’ rights are being trampled in cyberspace. So, if there is truly any rebalancing to be done, it cannot justifiably be a recalibration toward a more platform-friendly direction, as evangelized by many prominent academic and institutional copyright skeptics.
Technological Change is Nothing New to the USCO
But even if those market realities were not plainly observable, any suggestion that the next Register must be more adept than their predecessors at “balancing” new technologies with the rights of authors should be dismissed as ahistorical rhetoric. Balancing technological innovations with the rights of authors is not a novel core competency for the U.S. Copyright Office. From the moment the first Register was appointed in 1897, the newly created Office began immediately grappling with the technological inventions that were already transforming the nature of copyright in the late nineteenth century, and which were about to catalyze a wealth of diverse cultural expression in the twentieth century.
Register Thorvald Solberg, who was not even an attorney, was arguably the principal architect of the 1909 Copyright Act, the first truly modern (i.e. technologically savvy) copyright law, not only in the U.S., but possibly in the entire Anglo/American copyright lineage up to that time. As scholar Zvi S. Rosen notes on his Mostly IP History blog, Solberg diligently studied every extant and proposed copyright law in the United States between 1789 and 1904. At the same time, this deep dive into the purpose and nature of copyright was contemporaneous with rapidly changing technologies that were dramatically transforming the creation, distribution, and use of works of authorship.
Advances in printing methods, photography, phonographs, motion pictures, and player pianos all contributed to a technological revolution no less provocative at the threshold of the twentieth century than the arrival of the public internet and related digital technologies have been at the threshold of the twenty-first. But until the 1909 Act, prior revisions to American copyright law were somewhat ad hoc legislative tweaks that had yet to truly reckon with the changing nature of a law that originally protected maps, charts, and books.
For instance, when photography was added in 1865 and then challenged as a protectable medium almost twenty years later, arguably nobody in Congress had really considered the nature of authorship in this first mechanical means of creating images. Today, many of the themes from that seminal confrontation with photography are repeated as we consider the implications of new machine-made works in an age of artificial intelligence. Thus, the contemporary technological landscape may be fresh ground for legal theorists, but it is not wholly uncharted territory. “The Register of Copyrights has long been tasked with dealing with the intersection of copyright law and technology,” Rosen commented to me by email. “In fact the 1909 Act’s adoption of technological neutrality – use of ‘all the writings of an author’ instead of an enumerated list of types of works – represented a recognition that the Register would be tasked with evaluating whether a new type of work was a writing of an author.”
Solberg’s historical analysis of the entire legislative history, including the thinking behind every proposal up to 1904, set the tone for what the role of the Register would become—not just a chief clerk managing registrations and deposit copies, but a thought leader helping to define the contours of copyright law in context to the dynamic ways in which works may be produced, used, and made available. The next Register should be someone who keeps faith with this tradition, and certainly not someone who sees the Copyright Office as a forum for radical revision of legal doctrine, under the misguided belief that the digital age asks unique questions rather than variations on familiar themes.
Changes in Distribution Methods Do Not Upend Copyright’s Principles
Although the most powerful internet and technology companies like to tell us that their platforms and apps “change everything,” we must remain mindful of the fact that many of these shiny new toys have actually been less revolutionary in a copyright context than the technological changes emerging during Solberg’s tenure. After all, most internet platforms are primarily just new methods of distribution (or in copyright terms “making available”) and this hardly recommends a holistic rethinking about copyright’s nature or purpose.
For example, Spotify and other music streaming platforms, while nearly obliterating both broadcast radio and recorded music, have in no way altered the nature of music making or the cultural value of music listening. But these companies have exploited pre-internet copyright regimes in order to direct most of the financial value in sound recordings into their coffers, while leaving most music creators a pauper’s stake in the all-digital market. So, just in regard to this one category of creative works, any suggestion that copyright needs “rebalancing” in favor of the internet giants is as immoral as it is economically untenable.
Claims of Imbalance at the USCO Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Readers may remember (though it seems a trifling matter today) that when Dr. Hayden was first appointed Librarian in 2016, the anti-copyright crowd became positively giddy at the prospect that she was a crusader determined to fix everything they allege to be “broken” in copyright law. I wrote at that time that the Librarian has never been the de facto copyright expert in the United States—not when Librarian Ainsworth Spofford first consolidated registration under the control of the Library in 1870, and not when the Register position was first created in 1897.
That same misguided anticipation of Dr. Hayden as presumptive copyright “reformer” practically effervesced when then Register Maria Pallante was rather suddenly, and mysteriously, dismissed; and this was because Pallante had become the focal point for copyright critics endeavoring to accuse the Office of being “culturally captured” by major rights holders. But even a peek under the surface of those claims suggests that anyone in the Register’s position who was (heaven forbid) a proponent of copyright, would have been likewise accused.
For example, in contrast to many shrill accusations of cultural capture and bias in the DMCA Section 1201 Triennial Rulemaking, I would challenge anyone to read the reports and show how the USCO has failed to largely favor petitioners seeking reasonable exceptions under those provisions. Or one could look to the USCO brief in the Fourth Estate case (2019), siding with tech industry and library amici on an important procedural question of registration. The list goes on, but the point is that we are justified in asking whether certain parties really want a “more balanced” Register or want a Register who is ideologically hostile toward copyright?
That question may be rhetorical, but it is no exaggeration. It alludes to a longstanding and still simmering debate in copyright history. Those who view copyright as a necessary evil—as a mere privilege granted to authors in order to get what society wants from them—naturally approach the law quite differently from those who view copyright as a matter of justice, a natural right of creators, but one with certain limits. The truth is—and public opinion supports this all the time—copyright is a bit of both. Most people, even if they are not versed in the law, consistently show that they discern both the inherent justice of authorial rights and the utilitarian nature of market incentives to produce and distribute works.
As I say, I do not know who the Register candidates are. But to the extent that Dr. Hayden seeks a fresh perspective in the current market, I hope she understands that where new legal thinking is needed, it should be to ask how we can better protect individual authors against massive, exploitative technology companies. And certainly not the other way around.
Photo of Minerva. Handy, Levin C, photographer. Congressional Library. Minerva. Washington D.C, ca. 1897. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013646342/.