Changes to U.S. Copyright Office Could Impact Public Historians

On April 26, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to transform the Register of Copyrights from a position responsible to the Librarian of Congress to a political appointment chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate. If passed by the Senate, this legislation could impact public historians and others who rely on the Library of Congress to represent the interests of educators, scholars, librarians, and archivists when administering copyright law.

The James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress houses the U.S. Copyright Office. 2011 U.S. Government photo by the Architect of the Capitol.

The “Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017,” or H.R. 1695, passed the House with bipartisan support on a vote of 378 to 48. Proponents claim that the legislation will help modernize the Copyright Office, which has been overseen by the Library of Congress since 1870. The text of the bill, however, does nothing to update the Copyright Office’s systems or procedures — it simply gives the President rather than the Librarian of Congress power to appoint the Register of Copyrights. Critics of this change, including the American Library Association (ALA), the Society for American Archivists (SAA), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), argue that it would further politicize the copyright office and elevate the influence of entertainment industry lobbyists over other copyright system stakeholders.

The U.S. Constitution authorized Congress to grant copyrights “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Courts have interpreted this clause to mean that copyright law must balance the rights of authors and creators with the public’s fair use of copyrighted works to advance art and science through research, education, and other fields. Locating the Copyright Office within the Library of Congress, a research institution, helps keep the administration of copyright law accountable to its constitutional mission.

Historians, archivists, librarians, and others rely on the Register of Copyrights to maintain the official historical record of copyrighted materials, as well as tools like the Fair Use Index that compile legal decisions on the use of copyrighted works for education and research. The Register of Copyrights is also responsible for recommending exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s prohibition against circumventing copyright protection systems. Under current law, the Register must consider the “use of works for nonprofit archival, preservation, and educational purposes” among other factors in granting exemptions — a consideration  that may determine whether historians in future years can access electronic sources published with software based copy-protection or D.R.M.

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Mining the Public?

Mining the Public

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy which essentially is the belief that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge…

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