To celebrate Women’s History Month, I wanted to write about the five women who have served (and are serving) as leaders of the U.S. Copyright Office. Women have led this Office consecutively since November 1993, and their accomplishments are nothing short of incredible. These five lawyers (who all attended either Columbia Law School or George Washington Law) have contributed over 100 years of public service to the Copyright Office, counting all their roles. Here is just a snapshot of their accomplishments and contributions to copyright.
Barbara Ringer was the first female Register of Copyrights, from 1973 to 1980. She joined the Office in 1949, served for thirty-one years, and then, after her retirement, returned for another year as Acting Register spanning 1993 and 1994. She was a champion of women’s rights in the workplace and is widely recognized as a principal architect of the Copyright Act of 1976. In addition to her widely acknowledged deep expertise on U.S. copyright law, she was an ardent supporter of the United States joining the international copyright community, and she led U.S. delegations at negotiations on international copyright conventions. Her famous 1974 article, “The Demonology of Copyright,” contains many insights on copyright law and technology still relevant today. She foresaw the analog world converting to a digital one and advocated that the Office must move to a digital database interwoven with the registration system. “We are on the verge of enormous technological change,” she said in 1993. “The Library and the Office should be at the center of what’s going on.”
On August 7, 1994, Marybeth Peters became the second female Register of Copyrights, having joined the Office in 1966 as a music examiner. Early in her career here, she completed her law degree at night. She later served as a policy planning advisor, working on both domestic and international issues. She wrote the Office’s General Guide on the 1976 Act, and with her teaching skills, she trained Office staff on the then-new law. Peters had a longer tenure (sixteen years) than any other Register except the first Register, Thorvald Solberg. As Register, Peters also oversaw the implementation of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. She launched the triennial section 1201 rulemakings and testified before Congress on issues ranging from music to felony streaming. She also instituted online copyright registration and electronic copyright records. Upon her retirement in 2010, Peters said, “There were times when I was discouraged, although I never lost my belief in an electronic Office.” For those who know her, her laugh is unmistakably joyful.
Maria A. Pallante
Maria A. Pallante worked at the Office during Peters’ tenure for a brief time in the 1990s and then returned to the Office in 2007, serving in several senior legal positions. In 2011, she was appointed Acting Register and then Register of Copyrights. When she was named Register, Pallante told the Office staff that “The Copyright Office is known for its leadership role before Congress and internationally. It is also known for bringing together stakeholders with diverse points of view.” Her 2013 lecture and article, “The Next Great Copyright Act,” was followed by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives launching a two-year review of copyright law. There were 20 hearings and 100 witnesses, with Pallante serving as the first and final witness. Under her leadership, the Office completed a multiyear process, which, in 2014, resulted in the first comprehensive revision of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Practices in more than two decades. Pallante delivered eight major policy studies to Congress and developed a strategic plan and a provisional IT plan for the Office. She also created the Barbara A. Ringer Copyright Honors Fellowship, the Abraham L. Kaminstein Scholar in Residence, and the Copyright Matters Lecture Series.
Karyn A. Temple
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden named Karyn A. Temple Acting Register in 2016 and then Register of Copyrights in 2019. Temple released our current strategic plan and also launched our work on modernization, which includes building a new Enterprise Copyright System, streamlining business processes, improving access to public records, and reimagining the entire Office. Under her stewardship, she issued several policy studies (such as the Section 108 Discussion Document and the Moral Rights Report) and also oversaw the Office during the passage of the landmark Music Modernization Act. On the international front, she was active in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) work that led to the adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty and the Beijing Treaty, and the United States amending its law to join the Marrakesh Treaty in 2019. Upon leaving the Office for the private sector in January 2020 after working at the Office for almost nine years, Temple said she was “proud of the significant accomplishments the Office has made in the past few years, from elimination of its backlog of pending registration claims to reduction of its application processing times to implementation of historic new copyright legislation to entirely new departments and outreach initiatives.”
Maria Strong has been our Acting Register since January. She came to the Copyright Office in 2010, joining the Office of Policy and International Affairs, an office created by Peters and where Pallante and Temple also worked and led. Strong is committed to keeping the momentum of the many Office work streams moving forward. At the recent Copyright in the Age of Artificial Intelligence event, which the Office co-hosted with WIPO, she spoke about the work of the Copyright Office dealing with new technologies and legal changes. Strong observed, “Before I joined the Office, I had the pleasure of working with Marybeth on international issues for many years, and I met Barbara Ringer several times. Over the past decade, I enjoyed working with Karyn and Maria, learning from their perspectives on how to approach complex matters and strategies on both international and domestic copyright matters.” Strong added, “I am honored to serve as Acting Register. It’s really important to remember, in the midst of these challenging times, that this Office is composed of staff committed to public service and dedicated to our role contributing to the copyright ecosystem.”
I am proud to work for an organization that has a robust history of strong women leaders. Their legacies will last for many years to come.