First Proposal for Copyright Reform Arrives, Emphasizes Congressional Role

The first policy proposal for the current copyright reform process has been announced -- and you can expect music executives and creators to welcome it.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and committee member John Conyers (D-Mich.) have released a proposal that would give the U.S. Copyright Office more autonomy, although it would stay in the Legislative Branch of government. Most important, it would subject the Register of Copyrights, the highest copyright position in the U.S. government, to the same Congressional nomination process as other government officials. Currently, the Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress, and the Register is selected by the Librarian of Congress, with no review from lawmakers.

 The process for selecting the Register became a matter of considerable concern across the media and entertainment business in October, when the new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, unceremoniously sidelined Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante, who subsequently resigned. Among the issues they disagreed about, according to several sources, was how much independence the Copyright Office should have. Hayden is perceived as being skeptical of copyright, and entertainment executives were concerned that she would have the sole authority to appoint a new Register. She has since met with lobbyists and lawmakers, however, who reacted positively to her ideas.

Goodlatte and Conyers' proposal, which was issued along with a request for comments from stakeholders, doesn’t specify whether or not the Copyright Office would remain within the Library of Congress or operate independently, with Congressional oversight. The status of the Office has been a subject of debate in recent years, and some lawmakers have suggested moving it to the Commerce Department, in the Executive Branch, which oversees trademarks and patents.

This proposal is the first step in what was once expected to be a major overhaul of U.S. Copyright law -- what former Register Pallante in a speech several years ago called “the next great copyright act.” Over the last few years, Goodlatte has held extensive hearings on an array of subjects, but DC insiders now believe that he is aiming to enact reforms that will fall short of a major overhaul, since he will only hold his chairmanship for another two years. It is unclear whether he will try to pass one large bill or piecemeal reforms.

“We are excited to see the House Judiciary Committee begin releasing long-awaited copyright reform proposals,” says NMPA CEO David Israelite. “We commend the Committee leadership for its thorough examination of these issues and hope that today's announcement signals a move towards making the necessary updates to copyright law that finally would allow songwriters to be paid fairly for their work.”

If this proposal is any indication, the music business could benefit from the reform process. In addition to giving the Copyright Office more autonomy, this proposal calls for the creation of several new positions (a Chief Economist, a Chief Technologist, and a Deputy Register), the establishment of permanent and ad hoc advisory committees, and a process for modernizing the Copyright Office IT infrastructure. The Library of Congress currently operates with badly outmoded technology -- the result of neglect by former Librarian of Congress James Billington, according to several sources -- and the Copyright Office has suffered as a result.

Most important for independent creators, and most controversial for technology companies, the proposal also calls for “a small claims system” that was outlined in a Copyright Office report. This idea, which has been discussed in various forms for years, would create a way for copyright owners to sue without the complexity and cost of federal litigation. (Copyright owners cannot take cases to small-claims courts, since they operate under state law while copyright is federal.) Any proposed system would presumably set a limit to damages for copyright infringement that would be well under the current federal maximum statutory damages of $150,000 per work. While a small claims system might not mean much to major labels or publishers, it could give independent creators an affordable recourse.