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Marybeth Peters, Influential Former Head of Copyright Office, Dies at 83

Peters had the second-longest tenure as Register of Copyrights.

Marybeth Peters, who served as Register of Copyrights from 1994 through the end of 2010, died Sept. 29 at the age of 83. She guided the Copyright Office through one of the most eventful times in its history, from the early days of the commercial Internet to a time when piracy ran rampant on it.  

“Marybeth is one of the few people I know who really dedicated her life to protecting creators,” says RIAA chairman and CEO Mitch Glazier. “And she was ardent about it. She was very strong about saying that the rights don’t change – the technology does.” 

She played an important role in shaping important legislation for the Internet era. “Marybeth Peters contributed as much as anyone to modern day copyright law,” says NMPA president & CEO David Israelite in a statement. “Her commitment to crafting meaningful reforms has had a lasting impact and will continue to shape how creators’ work is valued and protected.” 

Peters worked at the Copyright Office for more than four decades and had the second-longest tenure as Register after the first one, Thorvald Solberg (1897-1930). She started in 1966 as a music examiner, then earned a law degree at night and joined the general counsel’s office in 1975 to help implement the 1976 Copyright Act, a major legislative reform. 

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When Peters joined the Copyright Office, copyright was a complicated and fairly obscure legal specialty that didn’t receive much attention. That changed in the late 1990s with the debate over the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Peters testified in front of Congress on issues related to these bills, as well as many other subjects.  

“The members really respected her,” says Glazier. “I remember as a Congressional staffer, going into members’ offices, both Republican and Democrat, and hearing them ask, ‘What does Marybeth say?'”

Peters was intellectually engaged by copyright and its complicated, thorny history, and she continued to attend copyright events after her retirement. At the same time, she was also known for her ringing laugh. She served as a mentor to a generation of copyright experts, including Copyright Alliance CEO Keith Kupferschmid and Association of American Publishers (AAP) president and CEO Maria Pallante, who succeeded her as Register. 

“Marybeth’s contributions to the Office and to copyright policy are significant and formidable,” Kupferschmid said in a Copyright Alliance statement. “But she was also known for her role in mentoring and inspiring so many professionals who worked alongside of her during her long tenure.” 

Peters was the second woman to lead the Copyright Office, after Barbara Ringer, who ran it from 1973 to 1980. “Marybeth Peters leaves an unparalleled legacy as a champion for creativity and an inspiring leader,” said current Register of Copyrights Shira Perlmutter in a statement. “Her broad and deep knowledge of copyright was matched only by her warmth and generosity in sharing it with all of us.” 

A memorial fund has been created in her name at the Intellectual Property Program at George Washington University Law School. 

“Her achievements—as a distinguished legal expert, public official, and chief executive officer—are unique and significant,” Pallante said in an AAP statement, “and they will serve authors and the global public for generations to come.”