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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Summer at the Library of Congress

Greetings from Washington, D.C! I feel fortunate to be spending my summer in the nation’s capitol as a Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress. My internship is in the technical services section of the Prints and Photographs Division, working with a team on an ongoing rehousing and inventory project. The goal of the project is to consolidate thousands of boxes of unprocessed collections from two storage locations into a new storage facility in Maryland. Our job is to rehouse the material, organize it if needed (which is usually the case), create folder-level container lists, and update the catalog and finding aids used by the reference staff so that the collections are more accessible to researchers.

Admittedly, processing archival collections is not the most exhilarating way to spend a day, but I find photographs and printed material much more compelling than textual records, so I very much enjoy my work. One of the best parts is that I have the opportunity to work with a variety of collections and materials, and I get to choose the collections that I process. After processing eight different collections, I have a new appreciation for all that you can learn just by paying attention to visual evidence. Let me tell you a little bit about two of my favorite collections and what I’ve learned from the visual evidence (and a little bit of contextual research).

The American Humane Association

Horse ambulance
Horse ambulance operated by the Erie County SPCA, c. 1910

The American Humane Association served as “a voice for the voiceless” – advocating for the humane treatment of animals and children beginning in the late nineteenth century. The photograph collection illustrates the activities and interests of the AHA beginning around 1910 through about 1960. One of the most interesting aspects of the collection is that, taken as a whole, it shows how people’s notions of animals evolved over the first half of the twentieth century. Most of the early photographs deal with horses – either working in the city, on ranches, or being used in wartime. Early education campaign posters photographed in the collection urged people: “be kind to dumb animals,” “you can’t starve and beat your horse and have him haul the load,” and “don’t skip his meals.” By the 1930s and 1940s, these basic reminders of how to treat animals were replaced by charming photographs of children with puppies and kittens, and a special series called “Touring with Towser,” that demonstrated the best way to road trip with your dog, including having the proper equipment such as a dog bed, thermos, food, collar and leash, and even raincoat. By looking at the content of the photographs used by the AHA in their publications, one can see how animals changed from being generally utilitarian creatures to members of the family.

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