Just a month and a week after being sworn in as the new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden abruptly removed Maria Pallante as head of the U.S. Copyright Office.
It was the first firing of a Register of Copyrights in 119 years.
Some commentators saw the dismissal as part of an effort by Silicon Valley firms and the Obama administration to weaken American copyright law. If so, this is not good news for those who believe a strong U.S. copyright system is key to the health of American print, audioand video content industries.
Certainly, that sector is important to the economy. Steven Metalitz of the International Intellectual Property Alliance estimated that "core copyright industries together generated over $1.1 trillion dollars of economic output in 2013, and employed nearly 5.5 million workers, nearly 5% of total private employment."
Pallante's efforts to modernize and strengthen the American copyright system had won bipartisan support in Congress.
Her dismissal was lamented by both House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.), who stated:
We are saddened to learn that Maria Pallante, who served with distinction as only the 12th Register of Copyrights and the Director of the Copyright Office for the last five years, will be leaving the Copyright Office. This will be a tremendous loss for the Copyright Office and for America's creators, innovators, and users of copyrighted works. ... We have welcomed her thoughtful testimony on copyright law and policy a number of times and closely studied the reports produced by her office. ... Americas creativity is the envy of the world and the Copyright Office is at the center of it. We must ensure that any new Register is fully qualified to lead this important office as it continues to directly advise Congress on copyright policy and law. The new Register of Copyrights should be dedicated to protecting creative rights and modernizing the Copyright Office.
The firing is a terrible start to Hayden’s tenure as Librarian of Congress. And Pallante's unfortunate departure would not have occurred but for the unfortunate — and quite odd — fact that the Librarian of Congress supervises the Copyright Office.
The office is increasingly important in today's world of electronic transmission of copyrighted materials. Yet it has been forced to share with the Library of Congress a location, personnel and what is — for the Copyright Office's purposes — an extremely antiquated information technology system.
Indeed, the current copyright system is treated as a second-class "basement operation" within the bowels of the Library of Congress.
In short, Copyright Office modernization is badly needed, but is stymied by current deficiencies in bureaucratic organization. Perhaps the firing of Pallante will spur supporters of Copyright Office modernization to redouble their efforts.
Moving the office out of the Library of Congress to become a separate agency for copyright, if done correctly, might be desirable.
Other possible reorganizational plans — such as creating an independent "super administration" that brings together key federal intellectual property functions, including copyrights, trademarks and patents — also merit consideration.
The stakes are high. In the global information economy, intellectual property is increasingly important to competitiveness. Ensuring that federal institutions protect the interests of American creative artists and inventors in the strongest possible fashion is paramount.
Congress and the next administration should get to work and modernize the Copyright Office and, more generally, take a close look at the need to better defend all intellectual property rights.
This piece first appeared in The Hill.