Most Americans think of Google as a search engine doing unalloyed social good, but the company also wants to make money and wield political influence along the way. So you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to notice that an abrupt change of leadership at the U.S. Copyright Office is good news for Google, which aims to pay less for profiting from the property of others.
Maria Pallante served for more than five years as the U.S. register of copyrights, a division of the Library of Congress. Two weeks ago Ms. Pallante was reshuffled to an advisory post for “digital strategy” she never sought, a job that included expanding the library gift shop. Three days later she resigned in a letter to the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, who had been sworn in mere weeks earlier. What happened?
Ms. Hayden’s allies say she simply wants to install her own loyalists, and maybe so. Ms. Pallante favored reorganizing the copyright office as an independent agency, which might have felt threatening to Ms. Hayden. But we can find no similar removal of a copyright register, and the details are unusual.
The Library’s public announcement said nothing more about Ms. Pallante’s tenure than that it “laid the groundwork for important modernization.” But in a memo to Ms. Pallante that leaked to the press, Ms. Hayden stipulated that her new job did not include “any communications” with Congress, which was reviewing copyright laws with Ms. Pallante. The House Judiciary Committee put out a bipartisan statement calling Ms. Pallante’s departure a “tremendous loss.”
There is some circumstantial evidence that Google’s lobbying influence was brought to bear in removing Ms. Pallante, though both Google and Ms. Pallante declined to talk to us. Google’s business model is essentially making money off other people’s content, and the company’s strategy has been to infringe on copyrighted material like books and fight it out later in court. The copyright office administers laws that protect owners.
For example, Ms. Pallante’s office opposed a Justice Department interpretation of licensing that would have undercut collaborations. As it happens, that change was reportedly pushed by a former outside counsel for Google who had moved over to Justice. Ms. Pallante’s view won in court.
Earlier this year the Federal Communications Commission proposed something known as the set-top box rule. The thrust was to force cable companies to build a universal adapter so Google and others could broadcast content without paying licensing fees or abiding by carriage agreements. Google supported the new rule. Less pleased were creators, who wouldn’t be paid for their work.
A bipartisan group of House Members in July sent a letter asking the copyright office to weigh in. Ms. Pallante replied that the rule “would seem to take a valuable good” and “deliver it to third parties who are not in privity with the copyright owners, but who may nevertheless exploit the content for profit.” Ms. Pallante suggested revising the rule, which the FCC did.
This prompted outrage from groups funded by Google. Take Public Knowledge, whose website notes that Google is a “platinum” supporter—chipping in $25,000 a year and probably more. Public Knowledge’s senior counsel assailed the House letter, and in September it released a report claiming “systematic bias at the U.S. copyright office.” Ms. Pallante was singled out as “captured” by industry for the sin of focusing on “enforcement” of copyright law rather than rewriting it.
Something else happened in September: Ms. Pallante got a new boss when Ms. Hayden was sworn in as Librarian of Congress, a presidential appointment. Ms. Hayden formerly ran the American Library Association, which takes a permissive view of copyright law and accepts money from, you guessed it, Google. A month later Ms. Pallante was pushed out. The trade press had barely noticed the news when Public Knowledge tweeted: “Big news @CopyrightOffice today.”
The plot here is familiar. In 2012 Google’s deputy general counsel and head of patents,Michelle Lee, was selected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to run its Silicon Valley branch—and less than two years later President Obama nominated her to lead the U.S. office. This tilt of power was remarkable: Apple’s Steve Jobs had vowed earlier to go “thermonuclear” over disputes with Google’s Android. In a strange coincidence, many such disputes were soon settled.
Ms. Hayden is now looking for a copyright office successor, and don’t be surprised if she chooses someone whose experience includes time at Google. This is reason enough for Congress to take a look: If the position is open to political influence, then the register should be politically accountable—and report to elected officials, not the nation’s librarian.
Perhaps these are all coincidences and Ms. Hayden merely botched a personnel dispute. But she now has an opening to install a register friendly to Google, and anyone tempted to write off the Pallante dispute as bureaucratic squabbling should remember: The company’s goal is to defenestrate laws that protect property. The guarantee to own what you create is the reason entrepreneurs take the risks that power the economy—a reason guys like Larry Page and Sergey Brin start Google.
Tags: American Library Association, Apple, Carla Hayden, Federal Communications Commission, Google, Google’s Android, Google’s lobbying influence, Library of Congress, Maria Pallante, political influence, Public Knowledge, Steve Jobs, Take Public Knowledge, U.S. Copyright Office