A Strong Copyright Office Protects Independent and Diverse Creators

There’s a bill working its way through Congress that creators and creatives should know about and support. It’s the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017, H.R. 1695. The bill would ensure that the Copyright Office continues to have a vocal and independent role in advising Congress and the Administration on how important copyright policy is to creative economy jobs. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte and Ranking Member Conyers introduced the bill, and it passed the Committee by a 27 to 1 vote, something quite remarkable in today’s toxic, partisan environment.

I know firsthand how important it is to have a strong Copyright Office. Just last year, an ill-conceived FCC proposal from the former chairman threatened to cripple independent Latino programmers, and kill television networks that serve bicultural audiences like me. The ability of the Register of Copyrights to issue an independent analysis on the copyright harms of the proposal helped bring the FCC back from the brink.

The FCC chairman was seeking to promote cable set-top box competition—a laudable goal. The problem was that mandating access for large internet-based companies to receive cable programming would not have required getting the creators’ permission or compensating them. Despite having the support of the prior Administration, this approach was simply short-sighted.

Essentially, these Latino programmers, like other independent programmers, would have been forced to provide their content—including original productions—for free to very large companies with no real connection or commitment to communities of color. A number of these companies were enormously funded tech behemoths with huge user bases, more than capable of paying for content. Minority programmers’ markets are smaller.

No one was focused on this aspect of the proposal. The concerns of independent, diverse creators were being drowned out. Until the Copyright Office stepped in, that is. The Register of Copyrights explained how the proposal was inconsistent with copyright law and would undermine the business models necessary to produce content for audiences, diverse or otherwise. This was a turning point, and once everyone understood the implications, backed by the expertise of the Copyright Office, the tide turned.

Programmers large and small need a Copyright Office that can be heard. We were lucky with the FCC proceeding that the Copyright Office stood up and people listened. We may not be so lucky next time.

Because of a century-old accident of history, the Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress and the Register of Copyrights is selected unilaterally by the Librarian. Opponents of strong copyright policy want to exploit this fact to weaken and even silence the Copyright Office over time so that they can more easily exploit content for their own business purposes. The result would be bad for creators and bad for audiences.

For the past four years, leaders on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the Capitol have been working to address this problem. One such effort, H.R. 1695, would help by making the Register of Copyrights a position nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. This makes far more sense, since the Register is statutorily designated as Congress’ copyright expert and is the steward of a creative economy that represents $1.2 trillion of GDP.

Opponents of the bill are cynically trying to poison the debate with partisan and inflammatory rhetoric. But this bill passed virtually unanimously out of the Judiciary Committee. And anyone who knows or learns of the 100-plus year history of the Copyright Office and the 4-plus year history of the bill sees that rhetoric for the charade that it is. This bill is not about any one President, any one Librarian, or any one Register of Copyrights. It has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans when there was a Democrat in the White House, and when the occupant was a Republican.

At bottom, the legislation is the product of the studied judgment of policy makers that it puts the Copyright Office on a better footing to serve the public. The legislation would increase accountability to Congress and increase transparency in the selection of the Register by giving all Americans a voice through their elected representatives. And by rightfully raising the stature of the Copyright Office, the bill would make it harder to ignore the Register of Copyrights, along with all the creative voices in the industry that the Register overseas.

Please support H.R. 1695 as if your favorite show depends on it. In some ways, it might.

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