Murder (or not) at the Library of Congress?

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
October 31, 2016

Making Sense of the Recent Upheaval at the U.S. Copyright Office

Over the last week or so, there’s been a lot of speculation, much of it unproductive, concerning Maria Pallante’s sudden departure from her position as register of copyrights. (See, for example, herehere, and here.) The clickbait headline in the Register was “Murder in the Library of Congress,” beneath which appeared the obligatory photo of a Parker Brothers Clue game board. Even members of the House Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of intellectual property legislative matters, weighed in. In Copyright Land, Pallante’s moving on is big news. What to make of it?

Commentators are right to point out that the unexpected change in leadership at the Copyright Office comes at a politically sensitive time, with substantial legislative proposals pending for the creation of a copyright small-claims tribunal and much-needed modernization of the office’s registration and recordation systems. As someone who works closely on matters of copyright law and policy, I can also say we’re at a moment of extreme political polarization over some fairly basic questions about the role of the Copyright Office and the current allocation of benefits and burdens in the copyright system.

I would like to offer what I think is a simple and plausible explanation for why the register no longer has her job. I have no inside information on which to base this hypothesis, and I’m sure those who feel certain that something unwholesome was afoot will find it unpersuasive. With those caveats, here it is: The new librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, made a rational executive decision to protect the structural integrity of her organization in the face of a fairly brazen internal challenge. In Hayden, we have a new, highly qualified and energetic librarian whose appointment follows an extended period of torpor in the leadership of the Library of Congress. When she arrived on the job, she was confronted with the uncomfortable fact that the director of a major unit within her organization — the Copyright Office — was in the process of actively trying to withdraw that unit from the organization, of which it has been a part since 1897. During her tenure, Pallante made no secret of her displeasure at having the Copyright Office operate under the umbrella of the Library of Congress. While there was doubtless good reason for the register to chafe under the regime of the former librarian, who to all appearances had negligible interest in bringing the library’s operations into the 21st century, there is no reason to believe that Hayden intends to run the library in the same way her predecessor did. On the contrary, all of the evidence suggests that she will be a modern leader for a modern library. And that’s a very welcome development.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post