Copyright is the only right defined in the main text of the U.S. Constitution. It is specified in Article 1, Section 8, so it didn’t have to be added in the amendments known as the Bill of Rights, which tells us how important the concept of copyright was to the founders. They enumerated its dimensions in a sparse sentence:
To promote the Progress of science and useful Arts by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
At the recent Senate hearings on the nomination of Dr. Carla D. Hayden to the post of Librarian of Congress, Sen. Angus King of Maine raised the question of whether the Copyright Office should be moved out of its administrative location in the Library of Congress (LC), as some interested parties advocate.
In recent years, the notion that exclusive copyright should only be held by creators “for limited times” has been severely eroded, so that what was once a span of a few years plus an equally short renewal period has become, after intense pressure from copyright holders and others with a stake in copyrights, more than two lifetimes.
I feel that there are good reasons the nation should keep the Copyright Office where it is, but I needed reassurance that my views had some validity. So I telephoned Jim Neal, one of librarianship’s leading experts on copyright and a long-standing champion of both limiting copyrights and creating exemptions to the law to allow access to the intellectual treasures kept locked in commercial ownership. I was unsure of whether my perception that the location of the U.S. Copyright Office within LC helped preserve the founders’ idea that copyright should be awarded for a limited time was sound. It was reinforced when Neal agreed, saying that the location strengthened the understanding that copyright’s purpose is to make research and scholarship accessible.
Our discussion made me glad that Neal will be inaugurated as president of the American Library Association in 2017. This timing is especially important because his leadership in the battles over copyright has been so crucial to our professional belief in free access to information and knowledge for the growth and health of our society. These battles will surely intensify in the next few years.
We are already facing a challenge increased by the lengthening term of copyright and the efforts of commercial electronic information providers and publishers to replace the old tradition of selling ownership of books and periodicals with a pay per use model governed by contracts. While no one would deny the importance of powerful copyright law to protect the ability of authors and inventors to be compensated for their creations, we seem to have forgotten, as a society, the need for those creations and discoveries to be available for the public good.
The discussions over free access to research in the health sciences that was paid for by the U.S. government but is often locked up in publisher copyrights is a good example of the enduring tensions between the need for free paths to new knowledge and the pressure to make us pay each time we use it. After years of debate, we are slowly moving toward a reasonable agreement on access to that crucial information, but it hasn’t been easy, and forces still oppose any exemptions to closed access.
LC is the right institution to respect both sides of this enduring argument and the right place to find the balance between the compensation of creators and their publishers and the needs of individuals to access and build upon new information to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”
The Copyright Office should remain at LC to respect and preserve that delicate balance.