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Barbara Ringer: Beyond the ©

Barbara Ringer

Today we celebrate the forty-sixth anniversary of Barbara Ringer’s appointment as the first female Register of Copyrights. While her tenure was long before my time in the Copyright Office, I’m in awe of her dedication to intellectual property law and especially to equality and diversity in the workplace.

Ringer earned her law degree and joined the Office in 1949 as an examiner. She moved through the ranks to lead the Examining Division and then become Assistant Register of Copyrights in 1966. Through much of that time, she worked as the principal architect of the 1976 Copyright Act, which was the first major revision to copyright law since 1909. Once President Ford signed the Copyright Act into law, Ringer led the effort to implement the sweeping changes.

Ringer retired from her position as Register of Copyrights in 1980, but she continued to advocate for intellectual property rights. In 1993, she served as cochair of the Librarian’s Advisory Committee on Copyright Registration and Deposit and then served as Acting Register from 1993 to 1994. In 1995, the Library of Congress awarded Ringer its Distinguished Service Award for her “lifetime contributions to the field of copyright, both nationally and internationally, and for her contributions to the Library of Congress over a period of forty years.”

While I never personally met Ringer, I have read a lot about her selfless dedication to others. I want to tell you a little bit of that story.

Ringer in 1963

Ringer had to sue to get the job she deserved as Register of Copyrights. When Register of Copyrights Abraham Kaminstein retired in 1971, the Librarian of Congress initially passed up Ringer as Kaminstein’s successor—a less-qualified man got the job. Although she loved the Library and the Copyright Office and said she “could not rest easy in her grave if she damaged either,” she sued the Librarian of Congress for discrimination. It was something she had to do, she told friends.

In the time between being passed up for the promotion and winning her lawsuit, Ringer left the Copyright Office and became the director of the Copyright Division of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris.

In 1973, when she was awarded the job she so rightly deserved, she said of the experience, “I pressed my case to be Register of Copyrights and got the job. . . . I had it in mind to help the Library.” She often said that being Register was the single greatest accomplishment of her life. “I found something worthwhile to do with my life,” said Ringer. “Was it worth a lifetime of devotion? No question that it was.”

Ringer was a champion for women’s rights in the workplace. A former colleague of Ringer’s stated that “Barbara was a pioneer in women’s rights. She was one of a handful of women in her class shortly after the Second World War at Columbia Law School. She eagerly mentored and encouraged women employees in the Copyright Office. The use of both male and female pronouns in the text of the Copyright Act was done at Barbara’s insistence.”

Colleagues also remembered Ringer as an advocate for part-time work schedules, women’s programs, and a childcare center. She did not have children, but she still worked behind the scenes to help create a safe and convenient childcare option for other staff members.

Ringer serving as cochair of the Librarian’s Advisory Committee on Copyright Registration and Deposit, June 1993

Ringer also was a champion for racial equality. Ringer’s lawsuit claimed she was passed up for the Register’s position based on sex and racial discrimination. She fought against discriminatory practices, publicly advocating for the rights of African Americans in the Copyright Office.

Her fight for racial equality went beyond the Library’s walls. Another Library colleague wrote that he ran into Ringer at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in 1963. He said he wasn’t surprised to see her there.

Ringer was passionate about animal welfare and protecting scenic land. In 2000, Ringer retired to her farm near Millboro, Virginia, and actively volunteered for animal welfare organizations in the area. She also worked to protect farms and scenic land from development. She placed several small properties she owned in conservation easements so they would be preserved forever as wilderness. When she passed away, donations were requested for the local animal welfare federation.

Ringer remembered the Library in her will. Ringer amassed a collection of 20,000 movies throughout her lifetime. When she died of complications from dementia in 2009, she willed that collection to the Library of Congress.

These are just some of the amazing stories I’ve found about Barbara Ringer. I’m glad women like her blazed the trail for future generations, and I’m honored to carry on a small part of her legacy at the Copyright Office.

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