A chorus of cheers went up from the music community with Wednesday’s congressional approval of a bill that aims to create an independent copyright office and reinforce the rights of content creators.
H.R. 1695, “The Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act,” is expected to encounter no significant opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it will be voted on before going to the president’s desk. The bill passed the House of Representatives 378-48. Naysayers included 46 Democrats, among them minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Zoe Lofgren, whose districts are San Francisco and San Jose, respectively.
“Copyright is a Republican issue,” said entertainment attorney Dina LaPolt (Britney Spears, Steven Tyler), who has lobbied energetically for the bill. “They see it as private property rights.” Democrats tend to view it as “information wants to be free,” the so-called Silicon Valley approach that has pitted techs against creatives in a heated legislative battle.
Following several bills that had languished, H.R. 1695 is the first step in what the songwriters hope will be a decisive march toward copyright reform under the Trump administration. Revisiting the compulsory license rules that force artists to sell their songs for fees set by the government is also on the radar.
“Songwriters are small business owners,” LaPolt said. “The fact that 75% of their income is regulated by the government means that they might not be able to earn a living from their craft, and that is sad.”
The bill calls for removing copyright oversight from the Library of Congress and vesting it in an independent agency, run by a presidential appointee with a 10-year term limit and confirmed by the Senate. Such a move would put copyright on par with patents and trademarks, which have their own agency, the Patent and Trademark Office. It would also give copyright a more authoritative voice in guiding its future.
Currently the top copyright position – the register of copyrights – reports to the Librarian of Congress, who has hiring and firing authority and has since 1870. To some, the the idea of a librarian controlling copyright is at odds with the interests of intellectual property owners. “Librarians want everybody to have everything,” LaPolt said.
National Music Publishers Assn. President and CEO David Israelite was among those commending the bill’s passage. “At a time when creators constantly must defend their rights, it is critical that the register of copyrights is chosen carefully and vetted properly,” he said in a statement following the vote. “Copyright touches every industry and every person, and this bill is a good step towards ensuring the person advising Congress and helping determine policy for songwriters, artists and all creators is the best person for the job.”
Likewise, Songwriters of North America (SONA), which last year hired LaPolt to sue the U.S. Justice Department to try to overturn the 76-year-old compulsory license law, applauded the bill’s progress. “Today was a great step forward for music creators in the effort for copyright reform,” said Kay Hanley, co-executive director of SONA and the frontwoman of 1990s alt-pop band Letters To Cleo. “We still have a long way to go, but this is a great first step.”