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Unique Richmond Publisher Will Appeal After D.C. Judge Insists It Must Give the Government Free Copies of Its Books

U.S. Copyright Office demands books, threatens thousands in fines, offers nothing in return

WASHINGTON—Valancourt Books, a small Richmond publisher, will appeal a decision issued today by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia holding that Valancourt must provide the government with free copies of its books. In 2018, Valancourt teamed up with the Institute for Justice to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Copyright Office after it was threatened with fines that could have reached six figures for failing to comply with a “mandatory deposit” requirement.

“The government can’t punish people for publishing books without registering them,” said IJ Attorney Jeffrey Redfern. “The Copyright Office’s demand for free books just doesn’t square with the present state of copyright law, with modern book publishing or with the First Amendment. We hope that the appeals court will recognize the constitutional issues at stake in this case.”

“We’re obviously disappointed in the judge’s decision today, especially since IJ’s attorneys made such a clear and compelling case to the court, explaining why the government’s actions violate the Constitution. But we have no doubt this erroneous decision will be overturned on appeal,” said Valancourt co-founder James Jenkins.

Valancourt is a unique publisher run by James and his husband Ryan Cagle. James is a former lawyer who found his life’s calling reviving and popularizing rare, neglected and out-of-print fiction, including 18th century Gothic novels, Victorian horror novels, forgotten literary fiction and works by early LGBT authors. Founded in 2005, Valancourt has published more than 300 books, all of which they have permission to reprint, winning praise from literature professors and the press alike.

The U.S. Copyright Office is demanding copies of hundreds of books published by Valancourt. If Valancourt doesn’t send the books, they could be subject to fines of $250 per book (plus the retail price of the books), along with additional fines of $2,500 for “willful” failure to deposit the books. But there’s a problem: Valancourt doesn’t have the books. They are a print-on-demand publisher, and giving the federal government free books would damage their business.

The Copyright Office is correct that the law entitles the government to copies of Valancourt’s books. The law, however, is a relic of the United States’ old copyright system, which used to require sending books to the government to register copyright. Now, copyright is conferred instantlybut the legal requirement to send copies to the government remains in force anyway.

The book-deposit requirement is a symptom of a broader problem throughout the federal government. Like many federal laws, the book-deposit requirement is obscure; most people—perhaps even most people in the publishing industry—have no idea it exists. And, like many federal laws, the requirement is mostly unenforced. Publishers have to comply only when (as happened to Valancourt) one of the Copyright Office’s handful of “acquisitions specialists” happens to spot them and threatens them with astronomical fines. Given the sheer amount of self-published material, there is no question that thousands of books a year go undeposited without anyone noticing.

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