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Does the Register of Copyrights bill politicize a critical job?

The House of Representatives just voted 378 to 48 to pass H.R. 1695, the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017, which makes the U.S. Register of Copyrights a presidential appointee requiring confirmation by Congress. Proponents argue that the change merely reflects the increasing centrality of copyrights in the Internet Age. Opponents of the bill say it does no such thing and vow to fight it before the Senate.

"The bill does nothing to improve the functioning of the Copyright Office, nor to fix any of the serious problems with copyright law, including its excessive and unpredictable penalties," said the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a blog post.

Some of those problems were on the table under the last officially appointed Register, Maria Pallante. Unfortunately, as an inspector general's report discovered, she spent $12 million over the course of five years attempting to bring all copyrights online. Many of the records from 1972 and earlier remain offline and only manually searchable. Furthermore, the EFF and other groups accused her of putting the interests of powerful media groups ahead of other copyright holders'.

The Register of Copyrights is currently hired by the Librarian of Congress, who is a presidential appointee. After the storm of criticism, the current Librarian, Dr. Carla Hayden fired Pallante. If she was indeed in the camp of Big Media, it makes sense that certain interest groups would want to shorten Dr. Hayden's leash. But was this vote about copyright law at all -- or was it about the Librarian of Congress making a controversial ouster?

"I'm sorry, it is about the Librarian," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D- Calif.)," Dr. Carla Hayden is probably the most qualified Librarian of Congress who has ever served. If we prevent her from appointing a new Register, that effort will be stalled, and that would be tragic."

Rep. Jared Polis, (D-Colo.) argued that moving the Register up a level to presidential appointee will merely politicize the positions. "Special interests will be involved in picking the person who makes decisions over copyright," he said. "Congress is choosing big powerful interests over consumers, over innovation, and over the little guy."

Opponents have the backing of public interest groups such as the EFF, Public Knowledge, and the Re:Create coalition.

Proponents of the bill called it merely a "commonsense measure." They have the backing of the motion picture industry, the AFL-CIO, software industry groups and some conservative groups.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) laid out goals: "We want a Copyright Office that's responsible to all stakeholders in the ecosystem," he said. "Core copyright businesses annually contribute more than $1.2 trillion to our nation's economy."

A vote in the Senate has not yet been scheduled.

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