Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Barbara A. Ringer, author of 1976 Copyright Act, 1925-2009

Sometimes an obituary answers a question one never thought to ask. In this case, the question is, who wrote the 1976 Copyright Act? The answer turns out to be Barbara Ringer, who died April 9 at age 83, according to a detailed obituary in the LA Times. And it turns out it took her 21 years (!) of drafting and lobbying to get the law passed.

The significance of Ringer’s accomplishment is this: The 1976 Act was the first comprehensive revision since the 1909 version, which was written in an era that predated audiotape, movies, radio, television, cable TV, and computers. Thus, the changes to the law were momentous. Among many other things, the 1976 Act lengthened the term of copyright, but it also codified the concept of fair use for the first time—a legal doctrine essential to permitting the linking and copying that are essential to the Internet, VCRs, DVRs, and various other technologies.

Also a part of Ringer’s life were the challenges of being a woman in what was at the time almost exclusively a man’s world. When she graduated Columbia Law School and joined the Copyright Office in 1949, most lawyers were not only men, they were heterosexual (or closeted) white men, and the profession was segregated by religion as well (there were “Protestant” law firms and “Jewish” law firms, for instance). Even 22 years later, in 1971, Ringer was passed over for the job of Register of Copyrights—the head of the Copyright Office—and was forced to sue for sex discrimination in order to be awarded the job she would otherwise have gotten.

As for what Ringer did when she retired, well, I could continue to recount the details from the obit. After all, facts aren’t subject to copyright. But I’d rather give the LA Times the traffic. Like most content businesses, newspapers are in a bad way these days, as I discuss in a legal article I’ll soon be posting. So click the link and do your part to help out the local daily.

1 comment:

  1. What most people don't realize is that many of the concepts in U.S. copyright law -- such as the compulsory "mechanical" license allowing others to "cover" musical compositions once they have been initially published to the public -- traces back to the sale of piano rolls for player pianos. It was years before phonograph records came along and profited from this same concept.