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.
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.