As a part of a recent Copyright Forum event, I was fortunate to spend a day and a half of both public and private time with our new Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante. Ms. Pallante works for the Librarian of Congress, but don’t think librarian. She’s an attractive, vibrant woman, a lover of music and art and a deep thinker when it comes to her role in the shaping of America’s cultural landscape.
I had sandbagged some prepared questions, digging deep into the inequities of the business / creator relationship, the future of music licensing, the fairness of the consent decrees and the relative values of the two music copyrights. Before the afternoon presentation, she read them, smiled, and with tongue-in-cheek, told me they were “too hard.” Instead she presented a wonderful, broad view of the political challenges and absurdities of running a government office of that size. (If you lose or fire an employee, you often can’t replace them because of arbitrary budget rules.) She also discussed impressive improvements and efficiencies and outlined the mountain of work yet to be done to get the Copyright Office up to her high standards.
To give us a sense of the culture at the office she stepped into, Ms. Pallante shared the fact that many staffers still refer to the two copyright laws, the underlying work and the sound recording as the “old” (1909) copyright and the “new” (1978) copyright. I’m a Papa (that’s gramps at our house) and even I don’t think anything from 1978 is new. That evening at the Bluebird Café, she was just another beaming music fan, especially enthralled, as are most female listeners, with both the artistry and the performance skills of my buddy Brett James.
But the most striking takeaway from my time with Maria was her deep understanding of the balance between the intention of the framers to reward the kind of creativity that makes this country a better place and the responsibility of legislators and the copyright office to make creative work accessible, available, and enjoyable to the American public. Just as any average Joe back in the day might have taken advantage of a black market free cable box, not understanding the impact on TV and movie writers and producers, or say, maybe a scrambling musician in Miami with a young family might slow down his electric meter to scam a couple of bucks from the power company, not understanding the larger impact on energy costs for others, the public can’t be expected to always understand and take responsibility for what, on the surface, seems “free.” Distinguishing long-term greed from short-term greed has always been a difficult thing.
So it’s up to the legislative system and the copyright office to strike (or some would say “restore”) that balance between what’s good for all of us as consumers and what compensates creators so they can keep making America the wellspring of the greatest music in the world. That balance is the new “deal we need to make for music in the digital world.
This is the start of what Article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says is one of the responsibilities of the federal government:
“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;”