As new legislation makes its way through the halls of Congress to try and fix the mess
highlighted by the Librarian of Congress's refusal to extend a DMCA exemption on cell-phone unlocking
an important question has arisen: to whom, exactly, does the Librarian answer?
It matters a great deal whether the Librarian is part of the Executive or the Legislative branch. It appears that the Obama administration wants to have it both ways, as laid out in this ConcurringOpinions post by John Duffy, Peter Strauss and Michael Herz.
People may recall that when the Whitehouse.gov petition on unlocking got enough signatures to require a response, the Administration said "yes, we support that but we can't do anything about it because the Librarian is part of the Legislative branch, so sorry." And in fact, that appears to be the Librarian's position as well, as the posting quotes Congressional testimony from the Librarian saying, for example, that the office is “a unique part of the Legislative Branch of the government.”
But with little fanfare the DOJ is in Federal court right now arguing the opposite in a case that has now reached (and may be heard by) the Supreme Court called Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Copyright Royalty Board. Here's a money quote:
the Library of Congress is “an executive Department,” and the Librarian himself is “subject to plenary oversight by the President.”
ORLY? Why would they want to argue that? Because, as the cell-phone case shows, the Librarian has been vested with authority to execute - that is, carry out the enforcement of - copyright legislation. This is done via the Librarian appointing the Registrar of Copyrights and the judges of the Copyright Royalty Board. And the Administration wants that to continue because this provides them a convenient arm's-length distance from the mess that enforcing those laws is creating.
It's pretty well understood by Constitutional scholars that such appointment powers should reside only with the Executive. Congress can advise and consent, including blocking appointments over which it has advisory power, but the Legislative branch under our government cannot take the initiative to appoint those people who will execute the laws, nor those who sit in judgment over them. Congress hears nominations for judicial offices on the basis of Executive-branch desires to appoint, and that includes judges of copyright.
As noted above, this case is still only at the petition stage, but there's hope that if SCOTUS takes it, the Court will unravel this knot by making a clear decision. Once they do that it will be clear that the Administration has the power to enforce copyright laws and they will no longer be able to weasel out of public demand for changes in how enforcement is done. New legislation to fix the underlying laws is still welcome, but this case could create a bright line that will force Obama to choose between the public and his Cartel funders. Sadly, I have a suspicion he'll end up on the wrong side of that line again.