Last year, President Obama appointed a new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, who, unlike Billington, had an impeccable track record as an actual librarian — she was previously CEO of the massive Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and led an impressive modernization effort. This appointment led to fears from legacy industry players, who literally argued that the Library of Congress did not need another librarian.
Soon after her approval by the Senate, Hayden surprised many by effectively firing the Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante. While it has never been officially stated, the consensus view was that Hayden and Pallante likely clashed over Pallante’s very public advocacy to Congress to remove the Copyright Office from the Library of Congress and set it up as an independent agency. From Hayden’s standpoint, this would be a direct report going over her head to say she didn’t want Hayden to be her boss any more. It’s not difficult to see how that might lead to being fired.
Still, historically, the Librarian of Congress had let Copyright Registers stay as long as they wished, and this sudden removal resulted in an opening for the motion picture and recording industries to lobby Congress to do what Pallante had pushed for anyway: to separate the Copyright Office from the Library.
And that brings us to Goodlatte’s bill. It would effectively remove the Copyright Office from the library and remove the public interest mission of the library as a counterbalancing force on the Copyright Office and its recent one-sided focus on the law. The copyright-centric industries —who have always had an uneasy relationship with the internet — recognize one of the best ways to protect their interests is to have much more control over who will be in charge of the Copyright Office. The new bill gives the copyright industry the means to do that. However, it also puts the appointment in the hands of Donald Trump, who so far, has failed to appoint people to hundreds of open positions — meaning that the Copyright Office may remain vacant for quite some time.
The MPAA and RIAA have tried to argue that by making the new Register of Copyright an office approved by the Senate, that will make it more democratic, where anyone can weigh in on the appointment and influence the Senate’s confirmation process. That would be great for the MPAA and RIAA and their historic lobbying power over Congress, which is massive.
Keeping the Copyright Office within the Library of Congress not only keeps the Copyright Office from having political appointee as its leader, but enables the true role of the Library of Congress as an institution aggregating and disseminating knowledge and information. Hayden — in her short time in office — already has put in place plans to modernize much of the Copyright Office, and passing this bill would actually mess up that schedule and throw the plans into chaos. The Copyright Office would be back to zero in terms of modernization, with no timetable for a new Register to be appointed. And making the Copyright Office political would simply accelerate its unfortunate drift toward impulsively representing the interests of certain industries, instead of recognizing the complicated and nuanced impact of copyright in the internet age.