Copyright chief eyes web conflict

Maria Pallante is starting her new job as head of the U.S. Copyright Office just as tensions over copyright law are flaring.

Lawmakers are debating legislation aimed at protecting copyrighted material and goods online — an issue that has major Web companies and Hollywood studios butting heads.

Pallante will confront that pitched battle just as she’s stepping into some very big shoes. Her predecessor, Marybeth Peters, worked at the Copyright Office for 45 years, including 16 years in the top job.

The Copyright Office, which falls under the Library of Congress, oversees the registering of creative works — from movie blockbusters and chart-topping songs to software and books — and advises Congress on the enforcement of copyright laws.

Pallante will be tasked with interpreting how decades-old copyright law should be applied to the rapidly evolving environment of the Web, and finding ways to protect creative works without deterring tech innovation.

It’s no easy task but Pallante says she’s up to it.

“It’s an incredibly important time in copyright,” Pallante, 47, told POLITICO in an interview last week. “The field is very diverse in terms of stakeholders and the issues are very complex.

“But for me, it’s an opportunity to ensure that this office is out in front and playing a role to make copyright work in the marketplace.”

Pallante didn’t apply for the job. When Peters retired as the Register of Copyrights at the end of December, Pallante was tapped to run the office in the interim. But she never threw her hat in the ring for the position.

Although Librarian of Congress James Billington spent five months winnowing the pool of applicants, he invited Pallante to be considered for the job only last month.

By that time, Pallante had testified before lawmakers on how to tackle websites that violate copyright laws and spoke on behalf of the Copyright Office at tech events, winning positive reviews from dueling copyright interests in Washington.

“We have worked with Maria for years on a variety of issues and found her to be open and receptive to … all points of view,” Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn said.

Pallante received the official offer for the top job from Billington last week and accepted it. There was little time to celebrate: The next day she testified before House lawmakers on whether to stiffen the sentence for illegal streaming of entertainment over the Web.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House panel on intellectual property, opened the hearing by asking his colleagues to give Pallante a round of applause.

Pallante is known for her collaborative management style and accessibility, according to Steve Tepp, who formerly worked with her at the Copyright Office. Those traits, he said, served her well as the interim register.

“I don’t know anybody who’s had a complaint about her,” said Tepp, who is now the senior director of the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center.

Still, Pallante’s promotion comes with enormous challenges.

Not only is she following Peters’s legacy reign, but there are new, controversial copyright issues that the agency has to tackle on a tight budget.

Chief among them is Senate legislation that would expand the power of the Justice Department to shut down websites that illegally peddle counterfeit products and copyrighted material.

American content producers and goods makers are pressing lawmakers for action, while Web giants such as Google and Facebook fear legislation may violate First Amendment rights and stifle innovation.

Pallante has approached the hot-button issue cautiously so far. At a hearing earlier this year, she told lawmakers that the money flow to illicit sites needs to be cut off, but also cautioned them to evaluate the downsides to legislation.

“It’s critical that the Copyright Act keep pace with the infringement mechanisms and it’s time to review that again,” Pallante told POLITICO.

Additionally she added that the Copyright Office “should be looking at the digitalization landscape for copyright generally, and that includes orphan works, it includes licensing, it includes preservation and it includes commercial and noncommercial works.”

Peters, who has known Pallante for decades, said her successor is well equipped for the job.

“I saw her as another who could break barriers,” said Peters, noting that most of the past registers have been male. “She has a good sense of business, she sees issues and she can work with anybody.”

Pallante worked closely with Peters during her tenure. The two first met when she was a few months out of law school and working at the Authors Guild in New York, which advocates for the protection of published authors’ copyrights, Pallante said.

She credits her then-boyfriend and now husband for convincing her to take her first copyright law class at George Washington University Law School, from which she graduated in 1990. The class sparked her interest in the copyright world and she never looked back.

A native of Westville, N.J., Pallante, who has two children, has spent most of her career hopping back and forth between New York and Washington.

After working at the Copyright Office as a policy adviser for a year, she returned to New York and went on to work for the worldwide Guggenheim Museums, serving as the intellectual property counsel and director of licensing for seven years.

Pallante said she honed her business skills and knowledge of art and architecture.

“Working inside a museum as the intellectual property counsel has got to be one of the best-kept secrets in terms of practices out there for lawyers,” Pallante said. “I feel like I got an honorary degree in contemporary art and architecture when I was there.”

Peters recruited Pallante to return to the Copyright Office in 2007. The two later teamed up on the Google Books settlement with publishers, which the office opposed, fearing it would trample the rights of copyright holders.

Pallante served as Peters’s lead counsel.

“She worked tirelessly on the whole thing,” Tepp said. “It was a gigantic project and I know she put a lot of time in on it.”

Pallante is known for being passionate about protecting the copyrights of orphan works, or materials whose copyright holders cannot be immediately located. With Google and book publishers still working to hammer out a deal to create a digital universal library, the orphan works issue is likely to rise to the surface again soon.

Pallante said she’s excited about what lies ahead.

“I’ve been walking around, talking to a lot of my staff and there’s a great vibe in the office and it’s energizing,” she said. “My creative juices are flowing.”

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