The Lost and Found Legacy of Barbara Ringer

Remembering one of the architects of American copyright law—and one of the legal world's pioneering women
Barbara Ringer in 1993 ( U.S. Copyright Office )

I came across a quote a few weeks ago—one that so perfectly encapsulates the outdatedness and skepticism surrounding copyright law—that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen before: “The 1976 Copyright Act is a good 1950 copyright law.”

It was attributed to someone I didn’t know: Barbara Ringer.

She was one of only a few women in her graduating class at Columbia Law School back in 1949. Just after graduation, she took a position with the Copyright Office as an examiner, where she determined the registrability of applicants’ submitted works. When she wasn’t busy working her way up through nearly every position at the Copyright Office, Ringer was drafting the Universal Copyright Convention, attending international copyright conferences, and teaching at Georgetown Law Center as the university’s first woman adjunct professor of law.

She conducted empirical research. She published her work in law journals. She even wrote the article about copyright law for the Fifteenth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

And then I realized that I did know her. We all sort of know her: She was one of the lead architects of the 1976 Copyright Act. I went to law school to become a copyright lawyer. I had read her copyright law. I’d taken classes about her copyright law. I’d even written about her copyright law. And yet, I had never heard a word about her.

When I read the existing Wikipedia page about Barbara Ringer, though, I was unimpressed. I had been editing Wikipedia since college, so I decided to learn about Ringer by re-writing her Wikipedia article as part of the WikiCon 2014 article edit-a-thon. What I found was the story of a brilliant woman ahead of her time and—in some ways, still—ahead of ours.

Almost as soon as she joined the Copyright Office, Ringer set about updating the 1909 Copyright Law, an effort that had been tabled due to World War II. She reignited interest in reform, and spent more than two decades proposing legislation, negotiating among copyright owners, and lobbying Congress. She drafted most of the bill by herself.

Ringer’s efforts brought United States copyright law—previously, one that had been passed before the advent of commercial radio, television, and copyright machines—into the modern era. To the chagrin of many, her legislation sparked the trend in expanding copyright protection. The 1976 Copyright Act extended the length of copyright protection, from 28 years under the 1909 Copyright Act to the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. Her efforts also codified the fair-use doctrine, which permits some unlicensed and unauthorized uses of copyrighted works.

And, at her insistence, the Copyright Act used both “he” and “she,” making it one of the first pieces of federal legislation to include dual gender pronouns.

U.S. Copyright Office/Rotkin, P.F.I.

I felt like I was getting to know a kindred spirit in copyright law. A role model.

When I found a photograph of Ringer at a copyright hearing, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and sitting at a table filled with men, I couldn’t help wondering what she was like in that room. I imagined that her voice was quietly commanding. I started thinking of her as "Babs."

And the more I got to know Babs, the more I realized that she was a bona fide badass.

U.S. Copyright Office

Not only was she almost singlehandedly responsible for overhauling a copyright law that predated World War I, she was the first woman to serve as Register of Copyright—a job she finally received because she successfully sued the Copyright office for sex and race discrimination. And while she waited for the Copyright Office to get its act together, she served as the Director of the Copyright Division of UNESCO.

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Amanda Levendowski is a writer based in New York City. She focuses on copyright, free speech, privacy, and technology, and writes regularly at OhSnapski.

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