I read last weekend about the death of Barbara Ringer, who as the Register of Copyrights from 1973 to 1980, helped negotiate the massive overhaul of US copyright law that resulted in the Copyright Act of 1976. Although the seminal provisions of the Act are taken for granted today, Ms. Ringer is probably the person most responsible for codifying the termination of assignments provision of the Act, which allow authors and their heirs the right to reclaim their work, Although the 1909 Act had a variation of this provision as one of its tenets (in its two term approach) the system was abused and inherently unfair to authors and composers. The 1976 Act also codified the provisions of Fair Use for the first time. This paved the way for the decision in Sony v. Universal City Studios- certainly the most important technology case in the last 50 years
Ms. Ringer’s obituary in The Wall Street Journal quoted a law professor who opined that from a technological standpoint, the 1976 Act was obsolete from the moment it was passed. I disagree. I think that one of the great strengths of our copyright law is its ability to expand to handle each new technological innovation. although the challenges and possibilities presented by technology today could not have been imagined in the 1970’s.
Most importantly, I think that all artists owe Ms. Ringer a debt for her role in helping protect and secure their rights in their work.