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Understanding the Role of Women in Copyright

by | Mar 18, 2021 | Copyrights, Intellectual Property

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I thought it might be interesting to look at the impact that women have had on copyright in the U.S. 

Like many institutions in America, the copyright office started with mostly male gatekeepers who tended to favor male creators and leave women out whenever possible. Despite this and many other obstacles, women have been present from the very beginning of American copyright.

The role of women in this domain can be likened to a steady drip on limestone. Over time, with persistence, their presence has become deeper, wider, and more pronounced, but it has been a long, slow battle. And it probably goes without saying that we still have much further to go.

Women Holding Copyrights

Before the official inception of the Copyright Office, the Librarian of Congress issued copyrights starting in 1870. Surprisingly, that year also contains the first registered instances of female authorship: a waltz written by Elise S. Hamilton and The Historical Life of Jesus of Nazareth, and Extracts from the Apolostic Age, a book by Olive G. Pettis.

Future female artists (writers, musicians, performers) followed in their footsteps. Just a few of the more notable woman creatives who have held copyrights in the U.S. over the last century and a half include Virginia Woolf, Zora Neal Hurston, Susan B. Anthony, Ella Fitzgerald, Ginger Rogers, Shakira, Cyndi Lauper, and Beyoncé.

Women Working in the Copyright Office

Over the years, women have had a large role in shaping the Copyright Office as well. In 1902, there were 24 women (out of 61 total staffers) working in the Copyright Office. In 1973, a veteran in the office, Barbara A. Ringer, was passed over for the position of Register of Copyrights after decades of never-interrupted male leadership. The discrimination lawsuit that followed awarded her the promotion, and she went on to be a major player in the passage and execution of the 1976 Copyright Act.

Marybeth Peters, Maria A. Pallante, Karyn A. Temple, and Maria Strong also served as Acting Registers throughout the 1990s and 2000s. 

Women Seeking Copyrights Still Negatively Impacted By Implicit Bias

In spite of these gains, recent research shows that implicit bias continues to affect the number of women who officially register their work. The architecture of this problem functions like a pyramid of social influence.

For instance, domestic arts that women traditionally fulfill, like fibers, have long been labeled “crafts” rather than “art.” Meanwhile, sculpture, painting, and other mediums with male-centric creators have been labeled “fine arts.” These labels encourage “artists” to seek remunerative ownership of their creations while “crafters” let their toil become almost communal property.

Additionally, women receive less vocational mentorship overall. This results in them being left out of informal networking that would otherwise give them motivation and information regarding copyright. Without these foundations, women fail to climb to the top of the pyramid — that is, to apply for copyrights, patents, or trademarks and receive fair compensation for their work.

Studies have also shown that patent evaluators, both male and female, are less likely to approve applicants with a female name, even if all other elements are identical. (Because of the scattered nature of copyright, the data has been more difficult to analyze.) 

Women have come a long way over the past 150+ years. However, these statistics show that more work needs to be done both inside copyright office culture and to ameliorate social tendencies that seek to quiet women’s voices.

As the umbrella of creative legitimacy spreads to shelter more female creators, the landscape of our country’s intellectual property will grow more colorful, more diverse, and ultimately richer for it. Let’s encourage all female creators and inventors at all levels to pursue copyright, trademark, and patent registrations for their valuable creations and recognize the value of their creations.  

For more information on this topic, please visit the Library of Congress’s fantastic post on women in copyright.


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