The major law governing copyright in the U.S. will turn 38 this year. An update meant to modernize the law for the digital age took effect during the Clinton administration.

Technology hasn’t stopped evolving since then, of course, and many—including officials at the U.S. Copyright Office—say a comprehensive revision is due.

“The Copyright Office thinks it’s time to engage in a broader review of the copyright laws as opposed to little piecemeal changes,” said Jacqueline Charlesworth, general counsel and associate register of copyrights, during a South by Southwest panel discussion Friday at the Austin Convention Center.

The panel, which also featured entertainment attorneys Rachel Stilwell and Peter Strand, was part of this year’s continuing legal education sessions.


The U.S. House Judiciary Committee is reviewing the Copyright Act of 1976 in its entirety for potential updates, which, according to Charlesworth, has made for an “unusually busy” time at the Copyright Office. Separately, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is conducting its own review of the law for potential changes related to the Internet, Charlesworth said.

She expected Congress to begin considering draft legislation within the next year, following a series of public hearings.

The reviews are considering a variety of issues, including music licensing, the legal framework for remixes, and royalties for music played on AM/FM radio. Unlike digital radio or music streaming services, terrestrial AM/FM radio stations are not required to pay royalties to performers when they play their recordings, said Stilwell, an associate with Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane of Marina del Rey, Calif.

The Free Market Royalty Act, introduced in the U.S. House last year, would amend the copyright law to provide a public performance right for all audio transmissions of sound recordings. As an artists’ attorney, Stilwell said she supports the effort but doubted the bill would pass. The bill’s author, former Rep. Mel Watt, recently left Congress to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Even if it fails, the bill could help advance the conversation as music labels and radio entities negotiate the matter, Stilwell said.

The threat of legislation has helped motivate all parties to come together in search of solutions, Charlesworth said.

“The fact that [the Copyright Act] has fallen behind the technology is a risk for copyright owners and others who depend on the Copyright Act, because you’re leaving it up to chance for the courts and what they are going to say in a particular case,” she said. “That’s not a great way to make law or policy.”

To read materials related to this panel, visit the Lommen Abdo website.

Pictured, from left, are Stilwell, Charlesworth, and Strand.