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Barbara Ringer’s Legacy of Fighting for Equity at the Copyright Office: An Interview with Amanda Levendowski

Profile of Barbara Ringer on the right side of an image. Backgrounds is blue with faded image of people working. Text reads, Barbara Ringer, 8th Register of Copyrights, 1973-1980The following is a guest post by Lisa Berardi Marflak, Outreach and Education Section head in the Office of Public Information and Education.

Forty-eight years ago today, November 19, Barbara Ringer was appointed the Copyright Office’s first female Register of Copyrights. She spent her career fighting for equity within the Office and beyond and led the way for the four women who have since served in the role. In 1995, the Library of Congress awarded Ringer its Distinguished Service Award in recognition of her lifetime contributions to the field of copyright and the Library.

To commemorate Ringer’s legacy, I spoke with Amanda Levendowski, associate professor of law at Georgetown Law and the founding director of the Intellectual Property and Information Policy (iPIP) Clinic, about the inspiration Barbara Ringer provides to those in the field of copyright. Through articles and events, Levendowski has shined a light on a visionary leader who continues to inspire current and future intellectual property professionals.

Tell me about how you discovered the life and work of Barbara Ringer.

I began researching Ringer after I came across a fantastic quote: “The 1976 Copyright Act is a good 1950 copyright law.” I’d never seen something so perfectly capture the strengths of the act, such as codifying the fair use doctrine, while acknowledging its limitations in the face of advancing technology. Never did I imagine that its author would be a trailblazing woman I’d never learned about in law school. Ringer’s quip about a key aspect of her own work led me to continue researching her career, her lawsuit, and her scholarship, all of which I’ve written about in Ringer’s Wikipedia article.

Ringer was quite a trailblazer prior to her appointment as the first female Register of Copyrights. She publicly made a case for her own appointment as Register and worked to improve her colleagues’ work conditions. As you researched her story, what stood out for you?

Ringer served as a powerful advocate for equity within and beyond the Copyright Office. But she claimed that her identity and advocacy initially interfered with her groundbreaking appointment.

After losing the role of Register to a less-qualified male colleague, Ringer filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging sex and race discrimination. The appeals examiner’s findings revealed inequities entrenched at the Copyright Office in the early 1970s. Despite Ringer being the leading candidate based on her qualifications, achievements, and even outside recommendations, the Librarian of Congress actively recruited male candidates from outside the Library and appointed that less-qualified man to the position. The examiner also discovered a disparity among the ratio of men to women in those high-level policy-making positions and concluded that the sizeable documentary evidence supported Ringer’s allegation of sex discrimination.

Ringer made a similar claim on the basis of race. Herself a white woman, Ringer publicly advocated for the retention and promotion of people of color within the Copyright Office, including by issuing a formal memorandum about claims of discrimination and committing to promoting people of color to supervisory positions. Again, the examiner found evidence supporting Ringer’s allegations of race discrimination. But the EEOC examiner’s favorable findings did not result in Ringer’s appointment as Register.

Ultimately, Ringer brought a federal lawsuit challenging her colleague’s appointment. The court affirmed that “Ringer had the superior job qualifications and that the failure of the Librarian to appoint her was because of sex discrimination.” It also found “ample evidence in the record to support the . . . finding of racial discrimination.” Ringer was appointed Register of Copyright on November 19, 1973, and she spent her term continuing the work that the court found lost her the job. As one of the lead architects of the Copyright Act of 1976, Ringer insisted on including dual gender pronouns in the legislation. She mentored and supported women employees. She advocated for part-time work schedules, women’s programs, and a childcare center. And she left behind a legacy of fighting for equity within the Copyright Office.

Now, forty-eight years later, what continues to inspire you about Barbara Ringer’s legacy?

As the founding director of a clinic dedicated to serving the public interest in intellectual property and information policy, I’m most struck by Ringer’s aspiration for the copyright law that will inevitably succeed her “good 1950” Copyright Act. Ringer believed in rewarding authors and artists for their societal contributions, and she also hoped that the public interest in copyright would “provide the widest possible access to information of all kinds.” Nearly a decade after writing about Ringer for the first time, I’m still inspired by her vision for the future of copyright.

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