In my previous post about the Copyright Principles Project, I highlighted those proposals that recommend a greater role for the US Copyright Office. Whether or not the Copyright Office should take on a greater role is a subject that undoubtedly can generate plenty of discussion. But today, I want to look at a different issue:

Can the Copyright Office take on a greater role?

Certainly, Congress could easily add new positions to the Copyright Office to bolster its expertise, or the Office can be more active in its advisory role; I’m not talking about that. The question I’m asking relates to those recommendations that contemplate the Office exercising substantive agency powers — creating regulations (rulemaking) and  resolving disputes in a quasi-judicial manner (adjudication). And the question is not whether taking on these powers is practical or worthwhile, but whether taking on these powers is constitutional. 1This article is largely adapted from a section I wrote in Copyright Reform Step Zero.

It’s kind of an odd question; after all, the Office currently does exercise rulemaking powers — creating exceptions to the prohibition against circumventing DRM and technological protections 2Technically, it is the Library of Congress which creates these regulations, after consulting with the Copyright Office, but for this article, I will be referring to the rulemaking authority of the Copyright Office regardless of which department ultimately promulgates the regulations. — and its sister department within the Library of Congress, the Copyright Royalty Board, exercises adjudicatory powers — determining certain compulsory license rates in a court-like setting. But unlike administrative agencies that were specifically created to exercise these types of powers, the Copyright Office began as a “paper-pushing” department and only over time “grew into” a more robust agency.

This unusual path from ministerial department to something approaching a full-fledged administrative agency has given rise to lingering concerns about the consitutionality of the Copyright Office’s authority to engage in rulemaking and adjudication. To understand these concerns, let’s first take a quick look at how federal agencies in general can exercise these powers in a constitutional manner and then trace the growth of the Copyright Office’s authority since its humble beginnings.

Agencies and Separation of Powers

Today, much of federal law is executed through administrative agencies. Congress passes a law, and then agencies — the EPA, the FCC, the IRS, etc. — create regulations to fill in the details of the law. Agencies might also engage in adjudication, resolving disputes or adjusting regulatory benchmarks within their purview through judicial-esque proceedings. The basic idea behind this system is that agencies have greater expertise and flexibility than Congress to address these details.

In one sense, administrative agencies act like mini-versions of a three-branch government: combining legislative (creating regulations), judicial (adjudication), and executive (enforcing regulations) functions. The Constitution, however, establishes a federal government based on separation of powers. Since the New Deal, Congress and Presidents have increasingly relied on administrative agencies to carry out many government functions, so the courts have had to figure out ways to fit this “fourth branch” of government within the constitutional framework while maintaining checks and balances.

The Constitution prohibits Congress from delegating legislative power to another body. But since 1825, courts have recognized a distinction between general, “important” legislative provisions and mere details. 3Wayman v. Southard (1825): “The line has not been exactly drawn which separates those important subjects, which must be entirely regulated by the legislature itself, from those of less interest, in which a general provision may be made, and power given to those who are to act under such general provisions to fill up the details.” Today, agencies can create regulations to “fill up the details” when “Congress clearly delineates the general policy, the public agency which is to apply it, and the boundaries of this delegated authority.” 4Mistretta v. US, 488 US 361 (1989).

A second requirement to maintain constitutionally sufficient delegation is that the authority must go to an independent or executive branch agency; Congress cannot delegate quasi-legislative authority to a legislative agency. 5Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 138-41 (1976). True legislation requires passage by both houses of Congress (bicameralism) and the President’s signature (presentment). 6INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 946 (1983). If Congress retains any sort of control over the agency it delegates quasi-legislative authority to, courts view the delegation as a constitutionally improper circumvention of those two requirements. By control, I don’t mean mere influence. The control must be meaningful, like the ability to appoint or remove agency officers 7Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714, 726 (1986). or the power to veto agency decisions. 8INS v. Chadha at 954-59.

Growing into a Regulatory Agency

Many of the federal agencies today began during the New Deal, and were expressly authorized by Congress to regulate specific areas of the law. The Copyright Office, however, began a few decades earlier, without any substantive regulatory purpose as the goal. Under the first Copyright Act of 1790, copyright registrations were handled by district courts. This continued until 1870, when copyright administration was centralized in the Library of Congress. Congress created the Copyright Office in 1897 as a department within the Library dedicated to copyright administration. For most of the Copyright Office’s history, its duties were limited to processing registrations and other “ministerial” tasks.

The Copyright Office has had the authority to issue regulations since its creation, but it has historically exercised that authority in a limited manner — rules governing interest on late payments to the Office, for example. 9MPAA v. Oman, 969 F.2d 1154, 1156 (DC Circ 1992). The triennial DRM exception rulemaking procedures set out in the DMCA in 1998 — 101 years after the Office was established — represents the first time the Copyright Office took on substantive rulemaking authority.

Perhaps because of the Copyright Office’s limited exercise of regulatory authority, little attention has been paid to whether that authority is constitutional. The notable exception is E. Fulton Brylawski’s 1976 article The Copyright Office: A Constitutional Confrontation, 1044 George Washington Law Review 12. written during the build up to the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976. Brylawski argued that the Copyright Office was a legislative agency and the Act would give the Copyright Office rulemaking authority that exceeds what the Constitution allows. As discussed earlier, Brylawski is right on the latter point: a legislative agency can’t make regulations. But is he right on his first point? Is the Copyright Office indeed a legislative agency?

Legislative or Executive?

At first glance, it might be difficult to see how anyone could say the Copyright Office is not a legislative agency. The Copyright Office is a department within the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is, well, of Congress. Not surprisingly, then, the US government places the Library of Congress in the legislative branch. 11United States Government Manual, 2009-2010 p. v. Courts, too, have characterized the Library of Congress as legislative. 12See Harry Fox Agency v. Mills Music, 720 F.2d 733 (2d Cir. 1983) (“The Library of Congress … is a part of the legislative branch itself”); Barger v. Mumford, 265 F.2d 380, 382 (DC Cir. 1959) (“Library of Congress has long been treated as being in or under the jurisdiction of the legislative branch of the Government”). The Copyright Office’s own website states that it is “part of the legislative branch of government.” And if you look through the US Code, you’ll find repeated references to the Library of Congress being in the legislative branch 13Check out 5 USC § 5531(4), for example. — the Library itself is codified under Title 2, which governs the legislative branch.

Noted copyright expert William Patry considers the above conclusive evidence that the Library of Congress, and by extension the Copyright Office, is a legislative agency. Other scholars have found the need to address the characterization of the Copyright Office when discussing proposals to increase rulemaking or adjudicatory authority. Michael Carroll notes lingering concerns about this subject in Fixing Fair Use. 14Pp. 1131-32. I noted previously that the proposal he makes inspired one of the possibilities for advancing recommendation #4 in the Copyright Principles Project. Edward Lee cites the fact that the Copyright Office is a legislative agency as one of the reasons why it cannot be relied upon to fill in gaps in the law through rulemaking. 15Warming up to User-Generated Content, 2008 University of Illinois Law Review 1459, 1475 (2008).

So … case closed, right? Not quite. When it comes to separation of powers, labels are irrelevant. After all, if the Library of Congress was renamed the National Library, it would be silly to think the constitutional analysis would change. What matters is what branch of government the Copyright Office is an agency of, and agency is determined by control.

Let’s take a look at the two most popular indicators of control: appointment (and removal) power and veto authority over regulations. The legislature has neither when it comes to the Copyright Office. The Register of Copyrights is appointed by (and can be removed by) the Librarian of Congress, who in turn is appointed by the President. Congress does not retain any power to approve or veto Copyright Office rules. Brylawski’s assertion that the Library of Congress is under the control of the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library? — simply not true. 1629 Cong. Rec. 1947 (1896) (Rep. Dockery).

Most strikingly, Congress debated at some length about what branch of government held sway over the Library of Congress when the Copyright Office was being created and if the Office would constitutionally have authority to issue regulations. The final bill gave the Copyright Office rulemaking authority, reflecting the fact that Congress was satisfied that the setup they settled on was constitutionally sound. 17For a comprehensive list of citations to those debates, check out 1 William Patry, Patry on Copyright § 1:41 n.4, especially , e.g., 29 Cong. Rec. 318-19 (1896) (Rep. Dockery): “This Library of Congress is a department of the Government. It is an executive department and should be under the control of the executive branch”.

Settle it in the Courts

Brylawski got an opportunity to take his arguments to the courts. In 1978, he was the attorney for the plaintiff in Eltra v. Ringer, one of the few times the constitutionality of the Register of Copyright’s rulemaking authority was raised. The Fourth Circuit rejected the “label” argument, stating:

It is irrelevant that the Office of the Librarian of Congress is codified under the legislative branch or that it receives its appropriation as a part of the legislative appropriation. The Librarian performs certain functions which may be regarded as legislative (i. e., Congressional Research Service) and other functions (such as the Copyright Office) which are executive or administrative. Because of its hybrid character, it could have been grouped code-wise under either the legislative or executive department. But such code-grouping cannot determine whether a given function is executive or legislative.

The court noted that other courts, including the Supreme Court, had given weight to Copyright Office regulations for decades. “It seems incredible,” said the court, “that, if there were a constitutional infirmity” for that long, no one ever noticed it. In the end, the court concluded that the Copyright Office was an executive office, operating under an officer appointed by the President, not Congress.

The characterization of the Copyright Office as an executive office was reaffirmed in a March 2010 DC Circuit memorandum order. In Live365 v. Copyright Royalty Board, Live365 challenged the constitutionality of the appointment of Copyright Royalty Board Judges.

Wait, what? What does the appointment of Copyright Royalty Board Judges have to do with the rulemaking authority of the Copyright Office?

As it turns out, quite a bit. The question in Live365 boils down to: “is the Library of Congress an executive or legislative agency”: the same question involved in determining whether the Copyright Office has rulemaking authority.

The DC Circuit rejected the argument that the Library of Congress is a legislative agency. The President, not Congress, appoints the head of the department, so it is an executive agency. 18For a detailed look at this and the other issues raised in Live365 v. CRB, check out Department of the Inferiors? posted at CommLawBlog.

That, along with the fact that Congress doesn’t retain any veto authority over the Library’s (and Copyright Office’s) regulations, leads to the conclusion that the Copyright Office does have authority to issue substantive regulations. So yes, the Copyright Office can take on a greater role in the administration of copyright law. The Copyright Principles Project and other proposals have advanced various recommendations embracing a greater role for the Office, whether through Congress delegating additional regulatory arenas or through the creation of new adjudicatory bodies. The question remains whether the Office should be given a greater role. Given the benefits an agency may provide — flexibility and expertise — I think this question merits further exploration.

References   [ + ]

1. This article is largely adapted from a section I wrote in Copyright Reform Step Zero.
2. Technically, it is the Library of Congress which creates these regulations, after consulting with the Copyright Office, but for this article, I will be referring to the rulemaking authority of the Copyright Office regardless of which department ultimately promulgates the regulations.
3. Wayman v. Southard (1825): “The line has not been exactly drawn which separates those important subjects, which must be entirely regulated by the legislature itself, from those of less interest, in which a general provision may be made, and power given to those who are to act under such general provisions to fill up the details.”
4. Mistretta v. US, 488 US 361 (1989).
5. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 138-41 (1976).
6. INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 946 (1983).
7. Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714, 726 (1986).
8. INS v. Chadha at 954-59.
9. MPAA v. Oman, 969 F.2d 1154, 1156 (DC Circ 1992).
10. 44 George Washington Law Review 12.
11. United States Government Manual, 2009-2010 p. v.
12. See Harry Fox Agency v. Mills Music, 720 F.2d 733 (2d Cir. 1983) (“The Library of Congress … is a part of the legislative branch itself”); Barger v. Mumford, 265 F.2d 380, 382 (DC Cir. 1959) (“Library of Congress has long been treated as being in or under the jurisdiction of the legislative branch of the Government”).
13. Check out 5 USC § 5531(4), for example.
14. Pp. 1131-32. I noted previously that the proposal he makes inspired one of the possibilities for advancing recommendation #4 in the Copyright Principles Project.
15. Warming up to User-Generated Content, 2008 University of Illinois Law Review 1459, 1475 (2008).
16. 29 Cong. Rec. 1947 (1896) (Rep. Dockery).
17. For a comprehensive list of citations to those debates, check out 1 William Patry, Patry on Copyright § 1:41 n.4, especially , e.g., 29 Cong. Rec. 318-19 (1896) (Rep. Dockery): “This Library of Congress is a department of the Government. It is an executive department and should be under the control of the executive branch”.
18. For a detailed look at this and the other issues raised in Live365 v. CRB, check out Department of the Inferiors? posted at CommLawBlog.

1 Comment

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  2. With added “authority” comes added “complexity” and “bureaucracy”, additions calculated to fundamentally change forever the structure and role of the Copyright Office…a change that I daresay would not be for the good of either the copyright system or copyright law.

    The Copyright Office has to date served one very useful function, basic administration under Title 17, and one incredibly important function, the perception, reputation and role of serving as an honest broker. It has achieved the latter precisely because it has not been the maker of rules.

    Obviously, I question the wisdom of advocating such a cardinal change.