One man's legacy lives on in copyright laws

Lobbyists, opinion polls, the press, campaign contributions and other political,
social and economic forces all bear influence on legislative decisions.

Yet sometimes a single, passionate individual can make a difference. Morris Schnapper
was such an individual.

I first met Morris in 1978 when I worked on the staff of the then House Government
Operations Subcommittee on Management, Information and Technology. Nearly 70, he ran
Public Affairs Press, a small but influential book publisher. His office was in a Capitol
Hill townhouse, and he often came by to chat about our work and to share ideas. He was the
subcommittee’s only groupie. He knew more about the subcommittee’s history than
its staff did.

Government-held copyrights and the history of presidential papers were of particular
interest to him. Morris was driven by his view that government ownership of information
was terrible policy. He spent considerable time and money campaigning against copyrights
by federal agencies and workers.

Motivated by nothing more than his own sense of correct policy, Morris filed two major
lawsuits. The first was against Adm. Hyman Rickover, of atomic submarine fame. Rickover
had copyrighted a series of speeches he delivered in the course of his official duties.

The lawsuit was a matter of principle. No money was at stake because the commercial
value of the speeches was small. The case went to an appeals court, where the result may
be described as a tactical loss and a strategic victory. Rickover’s copyright was
upheld, but the court’s opinion made it clear that the admiral was on shaky ground.

Later, Morris sued the Supreme Court itself—actually, the Administrative Office of
U.S. Courts. Acting for the Supreme Court, the office had funded a television program on
court history for the 1976 bicentennial. The producer copyrighted the program and then was
required to assign the copyright back to the court.

Under federal law, the court could not have copyrighted the program itself. The lawsuit
argued that the court did indirectly what it was prohibited from doing directly. Again,
the lawsuit failed, but a 1981 appellate decision was not reached easily or without
recognizing the legitimacy of the concerns that prompted the litigation.

Schnapper’s campaign against government copyrights had a significant influence on
me and on the work of my subcommittee. The significance of the longstanding prohibition
against federal government copyrights had been forgotten over the years. As we moved into
the era of electronic information, preventing agencies from exercising ownership rights
over information they produced became especially important.

When revising the Paperwork Reduction Act in the mid-1980s, we took some ideas directly
from Schnapper’s work. We understood that it was not enough to prohibit agency
copyrights. The law had to ensure that information is available to all, without
restrictions on use or redisclosure, and at a price based on the cost of dissemination.
These provisions became law in 1995.

When the subcommittee drafted the Presidential Records Act of 1978, Morris’
expertise also was essential. He knew the history of the disposition of presidential

For example, to counter arguments that presidential records were always the personal
property of the president, Morris provided a copy of a letter from George Washington, no
less, stating his view that presidential papers belonged to the public.

Morris never bought anybody lunch. As far as I know, he never made a campaign
contribution to any committee member. He had nothing personal to gain from the policies
that he advocated.

His influence came from his broad knowledge of issues and history, hard work and deep
commitment. His files of old articles and clippings were a treasure trove of material
otherwise unavailable in the pre-Internet era.

Morris Schnapper died in February at the age of 86. He never finished the book on the
history of presidential papers he had been writing for decades, and that will be a loss to
historians. But his ideas continue to influence information policy, and he would surely be
pleased with that legacy. n

Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is [email protected].


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