Barbara A. Ringer ’49 was the lead proponent and architect of the Copyright Act of 1976, which brought about the first major change in copyright law in 70 years and helped establish stronger protections for authors and their works. In 1973, she became the first woman to serve as register of copyrights. Ringer passed away on April 9, 2009, at the age of 83.
Ringer was born in Lafayette, Ind., and received both her undergraduate and her graduate degrees from The George Washington University. She was one of the first women to attend Columbia Law School. Upon her graduation, she joined the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress and began a 31-year government career peppered with monumental achievements.
Ringer spent two decades working to revise the 1909 copyright law, an effort that included drafting legislation and lobbying Congress. “The basic human rights of individual authors throughout the world are being sacrificed more and more on the altar of . . . the technological revolution,” Ringer warned in a 1975 speech quoted in The Washington Post.
When the Copyright Act passed in 1976, it established the principle of “fair use,” extended copyright ownership from 28 years to the length of a creator’s life plus 50 years, and included provisions to protect authors from any technological media yet to be devised.
“It brought an essentially 19th century law up to date with the late-20th century and 21st century,” Arthur S. Levine, a copyright lawyer who worked with Ringer at the Library of Congress, said in an interview with the Post. “I don’t believe there would have been a Copyright Act if there hadn’t been a Barbara Ringer.”
Ringer retired from her position as register of copyrights in 1980 and went into private practice. She continued to publish frequently on the issue of copyright law.
“Her contributions were monumental,” said Marybeth Peters, the current register of copyrights, in an interview with the Post. “She blazed trails. She was a heroine.”