On September 18, 1996, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to consider S. 1961, the Omnibus Patent Act of 1996. This legislation, introduced by committee chair Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), is the Senate counterpart to H.R. 3460 (see Science & Technology in Congress, June, 1996, p. 2). Where both bills propose to reinvent the Patent and Trademark Office as a government corporation, S. 1961 goes beyond the reforms suggested in H.R.3460.
S. 1961 would remove the U.S. Copyright Office from its current home in the Library of Congress and place it under the control of a new U.S. Intellectual Property Organization (USIPO). The USIPO would be composed of three parts: the U.S. Patent Office, the U.S. Trademark Office, and the U.S. Copyright Office. These three offices would be under the leadership of a presidentially-appointed Commissioner of Intellectual Property (CIP). Each of the three offices would be responsible for covering its own operating expenses and for providing a third of the annual budget of the Office of the CIP.
Inclusion of the Copyright Office in the USIPO is the source of much of the controversy surrounding S. 1961. The current Register of Copyrights, Marybeth Peters, suggests in her testimony that the proposed changes are "hasty and radical" and unnecessary. She stated that moving the Copyright Office to the USIPO and forcing it to become self-sustaining would raise copyright registration rates by an unreasonable amount. She felt that this would cause a decline in registrations, ultimately reducing the amount of information available to the public.
On the other hand, William Patry, professor of law at Yeshiva University, suggested that in order to function effectively in the 21st century, the locus of control of the Copyright Office should be removed from the Library of Congress. Mr. Patry argued that the functions of the Copyright Office are not legislative, and that they are more properly grouped with patent and trademark policy and implementation in the executive branch
A concern shared by both Mr. Patry and Ms. Peters, among others, is the proposed creation of a Commissioner of Intellectual Property. Their fear is that the CIP would have the power to determine policy for all three offices, turning the sub-commissioners into figureheads. There is also concern that, as a government corporation, the USIPO would be subject to political and financial pressures which may corrupt what should be an unbiased, apolitical operation. Ms. Peters felt that the purpose of the USIPO would be to promote commerce, and since the Copyright Office deals with knowledge that does not necessarily have industrial or commercial applications, the public is best served by keeping it under the control of the Library of Congress.
While no floor action was taken on H.R. 3460 and S. 1961, they are likely to be reintroduced early in the next Congress.