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Barbara Ringer's Untold Story

Matt Schudel

Last Sunday, I had a Local Life feature about Barbara Ringer, a Library of Congress lawyer who was the first woman to hold the position of register of copyrights, a position that dates back to the 19th century.

She was a remarkable woman who was a quintessentially Washingtonian kind of character. She spent her public life here, working behind the scenes in an arcane field of law and public policy that few understand but that affects many. Ringer was the force behind the 1976 revision of the nation's copyright law and wrote most of the bill herself. She spent 20 years holding hearings, learning about federal and international copyright procedures and generally persuading Congress that a new law needed to be passed. She extended copyright protection for authors -- and, by extension, songwriters, filmmakers and other creative artists -- from 28 years to the life of the author, plus 50 years. She made it easier for the author and his or her family to retain control of the copyright and the royalties it might bring. And, all those years ago, she foresaw the rise of the Internet and protected the holders of copyrights from the technological infringement of their rights.

But Barbara Ringer was also known for something else ...

But Barbara Ringer was also known for something else -- a dramatic legal victory in the early 1970s as one of the first women who successfully sued the federal goverment for sex discrimination. This element of her career was not included in the press release from the Library of Congress announcing her death -- possibly because it didn't necessarily reflect well on the library -- but a friend alluded to it, and I began to snoop around. It turns out that her case was documented fairly well at the time but had almost been forgotten.

Ringer was, first of all, one of the few women in her Columbia University Law School class. (She graduated in 1949.) When she went to the Library of Congress, she was virtually the only woman in her office. Our obituary included a photograph from the 1960s of Ringer as the lone woman in a room full of men working on revisions to the copyright act.

As early as 1966, she was the second-ranking person in the Copyright Office, which part of the Library of Congress and governs the nation's system of copyrights. When the register of copyrights -- the head of the Copyright Office -- retired in 1971, he recommended that Ringer succeed him. She had excellent performance reviews and had already spent years leading the effort to pass the new copyright law.

Instead, the librarian of Congress, L. Quincy Mumford, named a man to the job who had far less experience in copyright law than Barbara Ringer had. Ringer's friends prevailed on her to file a discrimination suit against the library -- something she was reluctant to do because of her love for the institution. She then left the library and the United States for two years and worked in Paris for the United Nations while her case was heard.

A federal hearing examiner (a man who worked at the National Security Agency) ruled that the Library of Congress violated its own hiring rules, as well as federally mandated protections for women and minorities. It was determined that Ringer had faced both gender and racial discrimination and was wrongfully deprived of the job she was entitled to. (She was not African American, by the way, but she had long advocated for the rights of black workers and had promised to promote African Americans if she should be named register of copyrights. One of her colleagues told me that he bumped into Ringer on the Mall on Aug. 28, 1963; she had left the office that day to listen to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.)

In the end, a federal judge ruled in Ringer's favor. The register of copyrights named in her place was dismissed, and she was installed in the position in 1973. Three years later, she sawa the new revised copyright law passed by Congress.

By Matt Schudel  |  April 29, 2009; 11:28 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel , Washington DC-area people  
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