On February 2, 2017, the U.S. Copyright Office issued its final rule in The Federal Register about the removal of personally identifiable information from copyright registration records (PDF). That sounds pretty boring even to me, and I tend to like so-called “boring” legalese. This rule, however, contains something unexpected for our current political climate: for the first time, as of March 6, 2017 (the effective date of the rule), the Copyright Office will permit authors or copyright claimants to change their names in the online public catalog.
Not every author registers for copyright protection with the U.S. Copyright Office. As the Office explains in its FAQ:
In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.
Those who decide to register have been stuck with the names on their copyright registration applications, even when those names reflect the author’s assigned gender at birth, not their expressed gender now. Those names are available to the public through the Office’s online registration catalog, potentially disclosing a person’s transgender status when an assigned name does not match a person’s expressed gender. This disclosure could increase the risk that a transgender individual will experience harassment or abuse.
As the Office explains in the Federal Register, referencing comments by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and a commenter known as T. Brown:
Two commenters urged the Office to allow authors or claimants to replace their names in the online public catalog… Although it may be possible to use a supplementary registration to change one’s name, both the original registration and the supplementary registration appear in the online registration record. According to these commenters, having a transgender individual’s birth name and changed name appear in the record could jeopardize the ‘well-being and personal and professional life’ of a transgender individual, put them in danger, or subject them to ‘employment discrimination, bodily harm and/or worse.” NCTE argued that not allowing a person who has received a legal name change to replace their original name with the legally changed name may affect victims of domestic violence as well.
The Office adopted the NCTE’s suggested rule as the final rule, which states:
201.2(e)(2)(iii) Names of authors or claimants may not be removed or replaced with a pseudonym. Requests to substitute the prior name of the author or claimant with the current legal name of the author or claimant must be accompanied by official documentation of the legal name change.
So, the author or claimant must provide documentation of their legal name change, a process that varies from state to state. This step makes changing the name on a registration somewhat more complicated, but the new rule is still a big step forward for individuals who want the name on their copyright to match their identity.
Is it odd that this change from the U.S. Copyright Office happened during the early weeks of the Trump Era?
THR, Esq. at The Hollywood Reporter noted that, with the Trump Administration and Republicans in charge (remember that the Republicans included in their 2016 platform the defense of “traditional marriage between a man and a woman”):
[I]t’s somewhat surprising to see a government entity  do something in the interest of protecting transgender individuals. [However,] it’s an obscure change to copyright rules, and to be quite clear, there’s no evidence that the Trump Administration was involved in this. To go further, we’d bet that Trump has no idea.
The U.S. Copyright Office, sitting in the Library of Congress, is pretty far removed from the Trump Administration, and it solicited comments on its rule on September 15, 2016, during the Obama Administration. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that Trump hasn’t had a chance to infect the Library of Congress with his particular brand of hateful idiocy. For example, the current Librarian of Congress, who appoints the Register of Copyrights and Director of the Copyright Office, is an Obama appointee.
Hopefully, as Trump continues his infestation of Washington, D.C., this rule will remain as it is. It’s hard to see why anyone but the author of a copyrighted work would care about the name associated with their copyright–except, of course, for that person’s harasser or abuser. In that case, maybe the Trump Administration will care after all.
Thank you for sharing! I actually had no idea about this part of copyright when it comes to authors, so I’m glad to be informed about this. So many things are going on these days, so it’s hard to keep up with everything.
It is hard to keep up with everything. I have no idea how people did it before the Internet!
Super interesting stuff you present. Brilliant as always in your analysis and discussion about this critical issue for trans authors. I hope the administration stays far away from the library of congress… but who knows what will happen. Thank you for this post, I learned a lot!
Thanks, Brendon. It’s nice to know that some parts of our government still function (for now). We have to celebrate every victory.
So much truth 🙂
Yay for the copyright office doing the right thing! If Trump ever decides to try and mess with the Library of Congress he is going to have a fight on his hands with Carla Hayden and a whole mess of other librarians!
Good to know! Librarians have always been a guiding light in dark times. I remember when they took on the Patriot Act during the Bush Administration.
This is…good news? I will take this and run with it. Thank you for posting about this because I had no idea.
Yes, it’s good news. It’s so important to celebrate every piece of good news these days.
Shared on FB. Thanks for the info.
Thanks for sharing it!
Great post! We all need to celebrate the small victories not only because there may not be many more, but also because for some people this will be huge!
Thank you. Yes, it’s important to celebrate every victory, especially now, when it’s hard to see any hope.
Brilliant analysis. I wonder how many other backwaters there are in the federal government that will remain under Trump’s’ radar and for how long?
Thank you. The Trump Administration is in such disarray, it’s hard to know how long it will take them to fully infect every part of the executive branch (and judiciary, sadly). I hope that it’ll be hard for them to find enough people willing to do their bidding.