Closed Doors or Open Access?: Envisioning the Future of the United States Copyright Office

Copyright Librarian Sara Benson

It’s Copyright Week! For today’s theme of “transparency”, Copyright Librarian Sara Benson discusses her thoughts on the Copyright Office activities to review Section 108.


In 2005, the Copyright Office, under the guidance of the Register of Copyrights at the time, Mary Beth Peters, called for a Study Group to convene and review possible amendments to Section 108. A follow up meeting was held in 2012. These meetings were not unusual, but what followed them, was both strange and unsettling.

The procedures after the Study Group, which took place in the summer of 2016 under the guidance of Maria Pallante, were unusual in that they took place in face-to-face meetings between concerned citizens and members of the Copyright Office rather than in a call for online communications between citizens and the Office. On the one hand, this gave the members of the Office a chance to engage in a dialogue with the concerned citizens. On the other, it meant that generally only those with the resources to travel to Washington, D.C. were privileged with the ability to engage with the members of the Office. However, the Office did note that it would engage in telephone conversations, if necessary. In any event, none of these conversations were ever made public.

At that time, it seemed that the Copyright Office was making an intentional move away from a public debate about copyright to a cloistered room with a privileged few. In my view, that move was undemocratic and should be discouraged in the future. Indeed, although the Copyright Office did publish a list of individuals and organizations it met with to discuss Section 108, but the actual subject and content of those discussions remains a mystery.

Notably, shortly after taking office as the new Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden removed Maria Pallante from her position as Register of Copyrights. Does this signal a move away from the process that was undertaken to review Section 108? Likely it does, as Librarian of Congress Dr. Hayden has recently taken further steps towards listening to the views of the multitude by openly polling the public about what we would like to see in the next Register of Copyrights.

This is an exciting time to engage with the Copyright Office under Dr. Hayden’s leadership. I encourage everyone reading this essay to add your voice to the ongoing discussions about the changes to the Office, including the selection of the new Register of Copyrights and beyond.

Spotlight: Library of Congress Labs

The Library of Congress Labs banner.

It’s always exciting when an organization with as much influence and reach as the Library of Congress decides to do something different. Library of Congress Labs is a new endeavor by the LoC, “a place to encourage innovation with Library of Congress digital collections”. Launched on September 19, 2017, Labs is a place of experimentation,and will host a rotating selection of “experiments, projects, events and resources” as well as blog posts and video presentations.

In this post, I’ll just be faffing around the Labs website, focusing on the “Experiments” portion of the site. (We’ll look at “LC for Robots” in another post.) As of writing (10/3/17), there are three “Experiments” on the site — Beyond Words, Calling All Storytellers, and #AsData Poster Series. Right now, Calling All Storytellers is just asking for people’s ideas for the website, so I’ll briefly go over Beyond Words and #As Data Poster Series and give my thoughts on them.

Beyond Words

Beyond Words is a crowd-sourced transcription system for the LoC’s Chronicling America digitized newspaper collection. Users are invited to mark, transcribe, and verify World War I newspapers. Tasks are split, so the user only does one task at a time. Overall, however, it’s pretty similar to other transcription efforts already on the Internet; though, the tools tend to be better-working, less-clunky, and clearer than some other efforts I’ve seen.

#AsData Poster Series

The #AsData Poster Series is a poster series by artist Oliver Baez Bendorf,  commissioned by the LoC for their Collections as Data Summit in September 2016. the posters are beautiful and artistic, and represent the themes of the summit. One aspect that I like about this page, is that it’s not just the posters themselves, but includes more information, like an interview with the artist. That being said, it does seem like a bit of a placeholder.

While I was excited to explore the experiments, I’m hopeful to see more innovative ideas from the Library of Congress. The Labs “Experiments” have great potential, and it will be interesting to stay tuned and where they go next.

Keep an eye on Commons Knowledge in the next few weeks, when we talk about the “LC for Robots” Labs page!