Monday, May 11, 2009

She Put Her Stamp on Copyright Law

Barbara A. Ringer, a scrivener in an odd niche of the federal bureaucracy who died April 9 at age 83, negotiated and drafted the Copyright Act of 1976, the first major revision in seven decades of a basic law governing intellectual property.

As the U.S. register of copyrights from 1973 to 1980, Ms. Ringer was proud of her devotion to protecting artists, writers and other creators. She said her heroes were Maria Callas ("a thoroughly selfish woman, [a] great artist who knew what she wanted and went after it") and Muhammad Ali ("a very very different type of person [who] just stuck to his guns").

What an interesting combination of heroes. Both certainly were determined individuals who let nothing stand in their way, in their mission to accomplish lofty goals.

The 1976 law was the culmination of more than two decades Ms. Ringer spent negotiating with business, lobbying Congress and drafting provisions. The Act established an expanded length of copyright (life plus 50 years, changed from 28 years, renewable once), codified the concept of "fair use" and made other key updates in response to technologies such as broadcasting, recording and photocopying.

Fair use is a very important concept. The government Copyright Office defines it:

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered “fair,” such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

After attending Columbia University's law school, a rarity for a female of the era, Ms. Ringer joined the Copyright Office as an examiner in 1949. She soon became involved in updating copyright law, a process that had been under way since before World War II.

Technology wasn't the only challenge Ms. Ringer confronted. In 1971, after she was passed over for promotion, she filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit against the Library of Congress. She won in 1973 and was promoted to be the nation's first female register of copyrights.

But the issue went deeper. She claimed she was passed over in part because she had pledged to promote black workers at the Library. Years later, in 1992, a federal judge ruled in a class-action suit that the Library had for decades discriminated against its black employees.

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