Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thank you Barbara Ringer

Our lives are bound by complex ties that connect us to people we never know or never meet. I did not know this woman who died on April 9 at the age of 83. I only realized our connection when I read her obituary in the Washington Post on Sunday April 26.

Barbara Ringer, you see, was the main architect of the Copyright Act of 1976. This Act affects my life as a writer and academic on a near daily basis. The law it enacted allows fair use whereby scholars can quote short extracts from copyrighted work, and it also extends copyright for an author’s lifetime plus fifty years. Before Ringer’s bill revised copyright, it only lasted for 28 years from the date of publication unless renewed. Every year I receive small--very small--royalty checks. My royalties offer little purchasing power but enormous satisfaction. They are manna from heaven, small but wonderfully unexpected gifts and cheering reminders that my work continues to be read and used.

Barbara Ringer worked at the Library of Congress most of her life. She crafted the basis for the 1976 Act, thus assuring me the ability to quote other writers as well as securing the copyright of my work for a long time. She defended the rights of creative people to have their work protected. Receiving her law degree from Columbia University in 1949, Ringer had to battle a sexist world, and she successfully won a discrimination suit in 1973 after she was passed over unfairly for promotion. She gave her collection of books and movies to the Library of Congress. Furthermore, she placed the land she owned in conservation easements so that the property remains wild in perpetuity. Her many good deeds will live on long after she has gone.

So thank you Barbara Ringer.