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With change at the top of Copyright Office, a battle brews over free content

The 14th Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, took the oath of office on Sept. 14 and abruptly fired the head of the U.S. Copyright Office.
(Associated Press)
The Washington Post

Musical artists are reacting with outrage at the dismissal of the head of the U.S. Copyright Office, calling the move an aggressive attack that is part of a larger effort to erode their creative rights and bolster advocates of free content.

“This is a major affront to copyright,” said songwriter and music publisher Dean Kay. “Google seems to be taking over the world — and politics ... Their major position is to allow themselves to use copyright material without remuneration. If the Copyright Office head is toeing the Google line, creators are going to get hurt.”

The Copyright Office administers the complex set of rules governing U.S. copyrights and advises Congress on policy and legal issues. It is a federal department within the Library of Congress.

New Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden last month abruptly removed Maria Pallante from the position she had held since 2011 and reassigned her to a role of “senior advisor.”

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Pallante resigned three days later. In a letter posted online, she requested the “reinstatement of access to my computer and email.” A library spokesman said she was not denied computer access.

Singer Don Henley said Pallante’s ouster was “an enormous blow” to artists. “She was a champion of copyright and stood up for the creative community, which is one of the things that got her fired,” the Eagles drummer said.

Although personnel changes are not uncommon when a new leader comes in, many in the creative industries interpret Hayden’s move — made six weeks after she took office — as proof of her anti-copyright bias. They say Hayden’s library background aligns her with Google, which owns YouTube, the source of many claims of copyright infringement.

“The librarian wants free content, and the copyright office is there to protect creators of content. They are diametrically opposed ideologies,” Henley said. Hayden, he added, “has a long track record of being an activist librarian who is anti-copyright and a librarian who worked at places funded by Google.”

Hayden declined to be interviewed, although a spokesman referred to her April confirmation hearing, when she told a Senate committee that she would make sure the office functions “in a way that will protect the people it serves, and that is the creators of content.” Pallante did not return several messages.

Copyright regulations are more critical and more controversial than ever because of dramatic changes in technology. In one camp are tech and Internet companies that seek exemptions to regulations in their efforts to spark innovation. On the other side are filmmakers, authors, musicians and television producers who want to limit free use and be paid for their creativity. Many of their representatives, including the Motion Picture Assn. of America, praised Pallante and advocated for a strong successor.

Future holders of the post must have “the expertise, support, resources and independence to continue the office’s essential and constitutionally backed role of advancing the arts by rewarding creators for their work,” Joanna McIntosh, the MPAA’s executive vice president for global policy and external affairs, said in a statement.

Pallante was considered an ally of the film, television, music and publishing industries, which contribute an estimated $750 billion to $1 trillion in annual economic activity and employ more than 5 million people. Last year, she issued a report, “Copyright and the Music Marketplace,” that listed fair compensation to music creators as its first guiding principle. The report also opposed a change in music licensing supported by the Justice Department, noting that “Congress, not the DOJ,” has authority to change the system.

Kay and Henley say technological changes are undercutting their livelihoods.

“There’s a mind-set that the digital giants have fostered that everything on the Internet should be free,” Henley said. “When they say they want free and open access, that’s code for ‘We want free content.’ ”

“You don’t make any money from recording music anymore,” he said. “The streaming services have wiped out that revenue stream.”

A Google spokesman said the company had had no contact with the Library of Congress or the Obama administration about Pallante or the Copyright Office.

Peggy McGlone writes for the Washington Post.


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