By JUDITH NIERMAN and GAIL FINEBERG
Barbara Ringer, the principal architect of the first major revision of the nation’s copyright law in 67 years and the first woman to serve as register of copyrights at the Library of Congress, from 1973 to 1980, died on Thursday, April 9, in Lexington, Va. She was 83.
Ringer, an attorney whose legal career as a specialist in copyright law spanned 32 years in the Copyright Office, was known for her skill in drafting legislation, her authorship of works on copyright and her ability to harmonize divergent points of view. She was a key adviser to Congress in the preparation and passage of the legislation resulting in the Copyright Act of 1976, which remains her most significant legacy. The preceding law had not been changed substantially since 1909.
A 1949 graduate of Columbia University Law School, Ringer joined the Copyright Office that year as an examiner of applications for copyright registrations. She served successively as head of the Renewal and Assignment Section (1951); assistant chief (1955), acting chief (1960), and chief of the Examining Division (1961); assistant register of copyrights for examining (1963); and assistant register of copyrights (1966).
From 1971 until her appointment as register of copyrights in 1973, Ringer lived and worked in Paris as director of the Copyright Division of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.
Ringer assisted two registers of copyright, Arthur Fisher (1951–60) and Abraham Kaminstein (1960–71), in their efforts to bring about a comprehensive revision of U.S. copyright law. The effort actually began before World War II but stalled during the war. Public Law 94-553 was signed into law on Oct. 19, 1976, three years after Ringer was appointed register.
After the copyright law was revised in 1976 with her leadership, Ringer led the Copyright Office in accommodating the ensuing sweeping changes by rewriting office regulations, creating new forms and establishing new practices.
For her leadership in revising the U.S. copyright law, Ringer, in a 1977 White House Ceremony, received the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, the highest honor for extraordinary achievement in federal service. She was recognized by her peers in 1979, when she received the Jefferson Medal from the New Jersey Patent Law Association, given each year to one who has made exceptional contributions in the field of patents, trademarks or copyrights.
Ringer retired from the Copyright Office in 1980 and joined the Washington, D.C., law firm of Spencer & Kaye. But she never stopped working on copyright matters. Ever an advocate for authors and creators, she became a member of the Committee for Literary Property Studies (CLPS) formed by Irwin Karp, former counsel to the Authors League. She and the committee proposed changes to the copyright-renewal system, submitted an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case involving the film “Rear Window” and the right to create derivative works, counseled the House subcommittee on renewal issues, and drafted the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 that repealed copyright termination and provided for automatic renewal of copyright for works copyrighted between 1964 and 1977. Ringer felt works from that period had been treated unfairly in the 1976 Act. In 1988, when legislation was blocked in the Senate, she advocated for U.S. entry into the Berne Convention.
Ringer returned to the Copyright Office in 1993 to serve for nearly a year (November 1993 to August 1994) as acting register of copyrights and also as co-chairman of the Librarian’s Advisory Committee on Copyright Registration and Deposit (ACCORD).
As acting register, she worked on regulations relating to cable and satellite licensing. When Congress created the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel (CARP) in 1993, she proposed a system that was similar to that of the current Copyright Royalty Board. Colleagues say that she was 15 years ahead of the time because of her concern for continuity of CARP decisions.
Ringer foresaw that the analog world would convert quickly to a digital one that would require the Copyright Office to change its systems of registering and recording copyrights. To remain relevant, she said in 1993, the office needed to move to a digital database interwoven with the registration system, a step that the Copyright Office now is in the process of completing.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter. Judith Nierman is a writer-editor for Copyright Notices.