The Copyright Office belongs in the Library of Congress

In “Lessons From History: The Copyright Office Belongs in the Library of Congress,” a new report from the American Library Association (ALA), Google Policy Fellow Alisa Holahan compellingly documents that Congress repeatedly has considered the best locus for the U.S. Copyright Office (CO) and consistently reaffirmed that the Library of Congress (Library) is its most effective and efficient home.

the James Madison Building

The U.S. Copyright Office is located in the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: The Architect of the Capitol

Prompted by persistent legislative and other proposals to remove the CO from the Library in both the current and most recent Congresses, Holahan’s analysis comprehensively reviews the history of the locus of copyright activities from 1870 to the present day. In addition to providing a longer historical perspective, the Report finds that Congress has examined this issue at roughly 20-year intervals, declining to separate the CO and Library each time.

Notable developments occurred, for example, in the deliberations leading to the Copyright Act of 1976. In particular, there was argument made that the CO performs executive branch functions, and thus its placement in the legislative branch is unconstitutional. The 1976 Act left the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library. Moreover, in 1978, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Eltra Corp. v. Ringer directly addressed this constitutionality question. It found no constitutional problem with the CO’s and Library’s co-location because the Copyright Office operates under the direction of the Librarian of Congress, an appointee of the president.

Holahan also notes another challenge via the Omnibus Patent Act of 1996, which proposed that copyright, patent and trademark activities be consolidated under a single government corporation. This Act was opposed by then-Register of Copyrights Marybeth Peters and then-Librarian of Congress James Billington, as well as an array of stakeholders that included the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); American Society of Journalists and Authors; as well as the library, book publishing and scholarly communities. This legislation was not enacted, thereby leaving the placement of the Copyright Office unchanged.

The neutral question that launched this research was to identify anything of relevance in the historical record regarding the placement of the Copyright Office. ALA recommends Holahan’s research (refer to her full report for additional historical milestones and further details) to anyone contemplating whether the Register of Copyrights should be appointed by the President or whether the Copyright Office should be relocated from the Library.

In a nutshell, these questions have been asked and answered the same way many times already: “it ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.” Holahan’s research and report will inform ALA’s continuing lobbying and policy advocacy on these questions as we work to protect and enhance copyright’s role in promoting the creation and dissemination of knowledge for all.

About Alan Inouye

Alan S. Inouye is the director of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP). Previously, he was the coordinator of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President and a study director at the National Academy of Sciences. Alan completed his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.

Share your thoughts