Law in Contemporary Society

-- XinpingZhu - 09 May 2009

It is rare to see the term scrivener used in papers these days.


She Helped 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").

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.

"Barbara was the heart and soul of that project," says former Rep. Robert Kastenmeier, who headed the House subcommittee that dealt with copyrights.

Although a raft of digital challenges to copyright law have arisen in the intervening decades, the basic provisions of copyright protection still follow the structure and strategy of the bill Ms. Ringer drafted, legal experts say.

"She was one of the most important contributors to copyright law during the 20th century," says Pamela Samuelson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to updating U.S. law, the Copyright Act brought the country into line with international standards, paving the way for the U.S. to join the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in 1989.

Yet, according to Ms. Samuelson, Ms. Ringer's best-known contribution to copyright history may have come at a 1971 hearing when she told a congressman that his son wouldn't infringe copyright if he recorded a song from the radio. The interaction became an important footnote in the Supreme Court decision in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios Inc., which in 1984 established that taping television shows for home use was legal. Home taping, now covered as "fair use," became a national obsession in the decision's wake.

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.

As today, there was a multitude of unforeseen technology challenges. Jukeboxes didn't exist when the Copyright Act of 1909 was enacted and were accidentally exempted from the royalties due composers and performers by a provision aimed at more-primitive coin-operated devices. Other inventions such as cable TV and photocopiers raised issues about compensation for reproducing copyrighted material. Ms. Ringer became adept at sitting interested parties down and hashing out mutually agreeable solutions.

Despite attempting to bring U.S. copyright law up to date, "the 1976 act was obsolete when passed," says Jessica Litman, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. She adds, "They tried to technology-proof it. But copyright lawyers knew nothing about computers."

Ms. Ringer retired from the office in 1980 but returned on an interim basis in 1993 and warned that same year that copyright law faced new digital challenges. The much-debated Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 was Congress's first stab at bringing the law into the Internet era.

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.

Ms. Ringer never married and, with no immediate family surviving, called herself "the last leaf on the tree."


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r2 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:59:57 - IanSullivan
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