Interview with James Sanders – Copyright Registration Officer, U.S. Copyright Office
Armed with a law degree and a passion for all things musical, Vanderbilt alum James Sanders lands a government gig in the nation’s capitol. What guides this Atlanta native as he carves out a career path – one that sprouted from an early emersion in performing arts, expanded to the music licensing arena and now thrives as a public servant in the performing arts division of the U.S. copyright office? Could the guiding light be…happiness?
Paula: From what I know of your career, James, you were at the legendary Harry Fox Agency before you came to Washington, D.C. So, why would you leave the glamorous “Big Apple” for a civil service position at the U.S. Copyright office?
James: I loved Manhattan so it wasn’t an easy decision, but I guess in a sense the writing was on the wall because, when I did leave, New York was right at the onset of the downturn of the music industry. So for those people who may not know, the Harry Fox Agency handles compulsory mechanical licensing for the music industry and so they’re directly affected by what is now the continuing precipitous decline in revenues in the music industry. That was a huge part of it, quite honestly.
But, when I did get the opportunity to work with the copyright office, it was a wonderful blessing for me, because it allowed me to directly mix the two things in my background that are my principal passions – which are music and law. With Vanderbilt being in Nashville, the genesis of my desire to meld those two interests started at Vanderbilt – Music City.
Paula: How did your former Harry Fox position contribute to what you do now?
James: One of the things that was important in getting my job was having a solid understanding of copyright issues in general. And because the Harry Fox Agency deals with the licensing, collection and distribution of monies – because it serves all three of those functions as a mechanical licensing agency – I got a really good understanding of copyright law at its most detailed level, including things about ownership of various rights, mechanical rights, performing rights, sync rights and licensing.
It was really good because it allowed me to come to my position and hit the ground running. The learning curve was not as steep or as challenging as it might have been for other people. I really enjoyed my time at Harry Fox.
Paula: So, James, what does a Copyright Registration Officer do? And what are some of the issues you’re working on now?
James: Well, I work in the performing arts division of the copyright office, and I’m responsible for examining applications for copyright registration. So – in the case of that song at the top of your I-Pod playlist – the office will typically receive a registration [application] not only for the sound recording itself but also for the underlying musical composition – an important distinction.
To register the sound recording of the song, the associated record label – who’ll be releasing and distributing the work – would submit a registration application – hopefully by using the new online eCO process. This electronic application eventually finds its way to my desktop computer. I assess that claim in order to determine whether it meets the basic legal requirements for registration – a fairly simple process. However, if the work involves preexisting material (i.e. sampling) or if it is a derivative work of some sort, this process can become much more complicated and involve extensive research to access the validity of the claim.
In fact, correspondence related to just these sorts of claims – derivative works – is a large part of my day-to-day work. Questions of who created exactly what (and when they did so) are central to issues of copyright. It’s critical that information entered into the public record be as accurate as possible, and we who perform this role play an important part in facilitating this.
The nice thing about working in the copyright office is that I’m exposed to a lot of issues aside from what I do day-to-day. One of the on going issues, for example, is the Google book search project.
Paula: Do you think some copyright laws are too strident? Do you think that they prohibit or inhibit creativity?
James: That’s a fair argument. Absolutely. Because there is a lot to be said for the positive impacts of the 1976 Copyright Act which changed the laws. It was hard-fought and the registrar at the time did a wonderful job in making sure that that happened. But I think one of the things that has happened subsequent to that change, and certain corporate interests have certainly pushed for it, has been the continuing extension of the term of copyright.
While ostensibly that would help everyone, and a rising tide conceivably floats all boats, the concern is it also locks up or freezes the ability of people to be creative by doing many of the things that are central to creativity these days. For example, mash-ups, video, blogging . . . the many things that are central to change, changing guard . . . old media sort of disintegrating user-generated content. So there’s certainly a point to be made there.
Paula: Because often one piece of art…visual or performance…inspires others?
James: Absolutely . . . from the beginning of time. Working in the copyright office and examining claims, one of the things that I see every day is people taking inspiration, who sample other people’s work . . . so its clear to me that one of the principal concerns or issues that has to be dealt with is whether or not the copyright term is already too long, or whether or not there may need to be changes relative to shortening the length. These are big issues that need to be addressed.
Paula: What is it about working in Washington that supports or detracts from your career goals?
James: I’m lucky in the sense that with intellectual property, soft IP specifically being in the center of my focus, always having been a central aspiration of my career, the copyright office is dead center to what I want. And it was interesting to some of the people that I worked with that I would make the choice to move to Washington . . . having lived in NY and also lived in LA, the thought was that perhaps I was going off the beaten path and moving to a less important city relative to my concerns, but being in the copyright office is ground center for many of the issues that are central to arts, arts policy and cultural concerns. So, I’m glad to be here – it works perfectly!
Paula: I was reading a little about your background and you seem to have had music and “music making” at the center of what you were doing . . . you were performing, playing the viola, the violin. . . you performed in different countries – Belgium, London, Paris. At one point you performed in “Il Trovatore” with the Nashville Opera Chorus. That’s a big shift to go from creative expression at the highest form to this “lawyer stuff.” Help me connect the dots . . .
James: I always tell people part of that transition I made to law was [because] perhaps my level of excellence was not such that I felt necessarily comfortable pursuing as a career. I think, and this is something that my mother as an educator always instilled in me, that you should do what you love. You should make whatever it is that is your passion, central to your life.
The central challenge that you have, and I think its something that’s also really important for people to take advantage of as a part of the Vanderbilt experience, is to take the time, even in the midst of challenging studies and demanding testing and rigorous academics, to take the time to look at what it is that you’re passionate about so you can gauge your path accordingly, and not find yourself pursuing something that you don’t have a passion for, simply because it seems like a natural progression or a progression someone else wants for you.
The challenge again is to find a way to make a living, to support yourself, doing what you’re passionate about. But I think the beauty of Vanderbilt, and the beauty of taking the time to look into it, is if you search hard enough, you can find a way to mix and match practicality with passion and end up with a fulfilling life. Maybe you won’t be the wealthiest person, but in this economy I don’t think that wealth is a guarantee, so I think its really important to be happy day-to-day with what you do with your careers, 8 or 10 hours out of your life every day.
Paula: Do you still sing or play?
James: It’s been so long; I tell people I don’t know if I could sing if I wanted to! But what I do do, and what I continue to do, is I enjoy music. And one of the beautiful things about Washington that I didn’t anticipate is that it was such a great outlet for someone who likes live music.
Jazz is a huge part of Washington – I had no idea. I always think of New Orleans, I always think of other cities, as being Meccas for jazz, but for someone who appreciates jazz and is learning a lot more about it, I’m loving being in Washington. I could name venues . . . from the Kennedy Center all the way to venues with a 100-person capacity, there are many outlets for people who enjoy live music and enjoy the arts. That is the principle nexus of my artistry right now – in the audience more so than on the stage.
Paula: What did you do at Vanderbilt?
James: I went to a performing arts magnet high school in Atlanta, Georgia – The North Side High School of the Performing Arts, and I came to Vanderbilt unsure as to what I wanted to do. I wanted to broaden my perspectives after full emersion of high school, but ultimately decided that I would go to law school. After my sophomore year, I did an internship at BMI. For those who don’t know, BMI is Broadcast Music Incorporated, and they deal with the soft IP issues related to music for performance broadcast rights.
And it was a revelation because one of the beautiful things about Vanderbilt is, because it’s a world-class university, you have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide array of course work and disciplines. And everyone knows that they should take advantage of that. The beauty of that is that it opens your eyes to different ways to combine things that may seem diametrically opposed, into a career path that works best for you. So, that was the start of it.
Paula: What are some of the best aspects of your education? You went to Vanderbilt. You went to Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Texas . . .
James: Texas Southern University . . .
Paula: What are some of the best parts of those experiences that actually prepared you for your career?
James: I think first and foremost, I have to say Vanderbilt is an excellent education – a broad swath. Another of the challenges I say to people who are in school or at Vanderbilt is if you see a path that you see that is going to work for you, its incumbent upon you to cherry-pick course work that is going to work for you.
One of the things that was intimidating for me about Vanderbilt, particularly as I was about to choose a major, is that there was so much . . . so many options! And when I settled upon political science, it was good for me because I knew I ultimately would probably go to law school, but even when I got to law school, I had to make certain decisions that were consistent with my future goals.
One of those was taking course work in copyright law, patent law, trademark law . . . which not only laid the foundation but confirmed for me that it was truly of interest to me. So, I took copyright course work in law school and, again, I did internships both in law school and at Vanderbilt that were consistent with my interest in intellectual property law.
I did an internship at BMI, [while] at Vanderbilt and I did a New York internship at BMI when I was in law school as well. (The first internship, obviously, was in Nashville, and the second one was while I was in law school – I went to NY to intern.)
It’s a challenge but if you know what your long-term goal is, it really is important for you to pick those experiences and those circumstances that are going to get you where you want to go.
Paula: You went from New York to LA – what were you doing in LA?
James: LA was, after I finished law school, the first natural sort of “promised land” for me. There was someone else that I knew who had gone to Vanderbilt who had moved out there to work and was experiencing some success. I sort of followed my heart. I didn’t move out to LA with a job. I moved out there and spent some time. Honestly, it was a challenge because I didn’t find what I was looking for. And that is good you brought that up, because there’s a life lesson there.
Part of the reason why I am where I am now, is because I was following a passion, I could weather the lack of “instant success” that maybe other people wouldn’t have been able to weather, had I been doing something else. When I went to LA and came back, without having done exactly what I’d wanted, because I was following my passion it didn’t really matter to me. But at the same time, I learned a lot. So it was a good experience.
Paula: Risk is something we have to adapt to and understand and even embrace. Where do you think higher education could improve upon how it prepares students for a career?
James: Good question! I think that, especially at a school like Vanderbilt, such a great school and what you anticipate doing with a Vanderbilt education is so . . . so many options are open to you. I think so many people go to Vandy and think that they have to either go to Wall Street or go to law school, which I ended up doing, but I think encouraging people to create a path as individuals for what they want, is something that could come from, would be a good thing to come from higher education.
And I think Vanderbilt is trend setting and groundbreaking in many ways, as you know, and some of the things that they’re doing now to encourage that sort of thing. It is a difficult choice to make – to do what you’re passionate about, when, for example, my mother always wanted me to go to medical school. It’s a difficult thing to do . . . and I think if we had more programs like the Vanderbilt Center for Creative Enterprise [and Public Leadership], it would be an incubator for people and students, moving towards what they really want to do with their career, helping to bridge that gap.
Paula: What do you need to know to have a position like yours? Obviously you have the personal passion for art, you have the law degree . . . but is that it? Are there studies that students could benefit from?
James: I think the first thing to know about Washington is. . .and this is something that maybe a lot of people didn’t know…is within the context of the government, there are many avenues . . . there is a wide array of career choices. It’s just a matter of looking in the right places. No matter what you choose to do, there is probably a government job for you.
Again, you may not find yourself becoming wealthy, but you’ll definitely have a solid living. And if you’ve chosen a career path that is specific to you, that you’re passionate about, a government career is a good one to think about. In terms of choosing a career path, again I think the biggest thing is taking advantage of our Vanderbilt education.
Take advantage of a wide variety of course work. I took everything from anatomy and physiology to zoology to philosophy course work while I was at Vanderbilt. Ironically, the philosophy course work I took encouraged me to do those things that were most fulfilling to me. I took a class – probably basic Philosophy 100, utilitarianism moving towards being happy. Being happy with your career path. It just gave me a view of not necessarily going to the university and getting a degree just to make money, but to have a full life. To have a career I’d be happy with. So, pick and choose.
Paula: We’re using the term “creative expression” – how to do you see that being a part of your life, your world?
James: I think it’s a huge part. Again, I work in the performing arts division so I’m very connected both to the dry aspects of intellectual property law where they intersect with creativity. I think expressive life is critical. . .on the most basic of levels.
Even if music isn’t your thing, music is a big part of everyone’s life. People can remember specific points in their life based upon what songs are playing and that sort of thing. So I always say, cultural elements and the expressive life are critical for everyone.
Even if you’re not able to make it part of your career, I think it’s a consideration because the arts, culture and expressive life go a long way towards making us happier people. Even if you’re doing something that’s very dry, that’s not particularly expressive; when you get off work you get in your car and turn on the radio.
Paula: Anything else you’d like to add or tell us about yourself?
James: Little else except to say, those people who maybe don’t realize how precious the opportunity to have a Vanderbilt education is, I promise you, you almost certainly will appreciate it more later, after you’ve gone, than when you’re there. Many things you’ll take for granted about the opportunity and the experiences you have at Vanderbilt. As a Vanderbilt alum, I look back on my time at Vanderbilt very fondly and I think those that are there will too.