The Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act: Advocacy Tips for Crafters

Autumn just filled us in on the Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008 (S. 2913). If you have any concerns about it, I’m here to tell you how to present those concerns to the people who can make a difference: the federal government.

speak up

As of May 15th, this bill was voted out of Senate Committee on the Judiciary and placed on the full Senate’s intent calendar. That means that the entire Senate will be involved in making the next decision about whether this bill will move forward. You can follow the progress of the bill, as well as media coverage of it, at its page on Open Congress or on its official bill status page on the Library of Congress website.

Preparing to Advocate

Before you communicate with your Senators about this bill, you have to do your homework.

Autumn has provided a summary of the bill and information about the issues with it, which is great. I would also take a moment to read the Congressional Research Service (CRS) summary of S. 2913 as it emerged from committee. To have the best chance of having your concerns heard, you’ll need to be clear on what’s actually in the bill, and what people fear would come about if the bill passed. You can certainly communicate with your Senators about both types of concerns, but keeping straight which one is which will enhance your credibility.

To find out who your Senators are, you can visit the U.S. Senate website. Find your Senators and click on their names to go to their websites. You’ll also want to find out ahead of time whether your Senator has had any involvement with the bill thus far, such as authoring it (Leahy of VT), sponsoring it (Hatch of UT), being on the committee that voted it out (Judiciary), or making public comments about it. If you can’t figure it out on Google, then just call their office and ask.

You’ve Done Your Homework – Now What?

The most effective thing you can do is pay a visit to your Senators’ local offices.

I know it may sound extreme to actually go somewhere and talk to a human in person, but taking the time to meet with a Senator’s office staff is about five thousand times more effective than a letter, email, or phone call. If you have serious concerns about the bill, it’s worth taking the time.

It’s also not as scary as it might seem. I was pretty nervous the first time I did it, but it turned out to be no big deal. You may be more comfortable if you take a couple of friends along, so find a couple of other crafters or artists and make an occasion out of it. Call the Senator’s local office nearest you to schedule the appointment. Ask to speak with the staff person who would be responsible for the bill, and ask if you could meet with them for about half an hour to share your concerns. (If they don’t really know what the bill is, it may take them a bit to get organized, but be patient.)

Before you go, you’ll want to prepare a few written copies of your concerns to give to the staff person. You can bring a fact sheet or talking points prepared by another organization, but if that’s all you bring, it won’t be as effective as a personal letter from you stating your concerns. It doesn’t have to be a great work of literature, but keep it polite and professional. Make sure it includes your contact information.

When you get to the meeting, again, be polite and professional. Don’t be intimidated – chances are, you now know more about this bill than the staff person you’re speaking with. The staff person will probably ask you questions, but probably won’t debate or attack you. They work for you, and it’s in their best interest to at least appear respectful of their constituents. Each person should be prepared to briefly introduce themselves, explain why they’re concerned about the bill, and what they would like to see changed. If you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know and offer to call them back with the information.

At the end of the meeting, thank the staff person for their time. If you can send a thank-you note when you get home, so much the better.

If You Can’t Make A Visit…

Electronic communications are easy and quick, but they aren’t as effective as a personal visit. If it’s what you can manage, though, it’s better than nothing. If your Senator’s nearest local office is 200 miles away, for example, a visit just may not be feasible.

All electronic communications are not created equal, however. The easier it is for you to do, the less likely your representative will take it seriously. Elected representatives get a LOT of mail, and they’re suspicious of anything that looks mass produced. (Hey, we have something in common!) Online petitions, for example, are generally a waste of time unless they’re part of a media event. Online petitions rarely contain enough identifying information about the people who signed it for representatives to figure out if any of their constituents are included, even if they were inclined to search through all the “signatures.” Form letters and emails, especially if they seem to be organized by a particular group, are filed in the “answer later when you have time” pile, which may be three to six months later. Many Congressional staff suspect that form emails are sent without constituents’ permission, so they may ignore them completely.

So if you can’t make a personal visit, but you have serious concerns about this (or any other) piece of legislation, take half an hour to write a real letter (preferable) or email. Include the same information you would in a visit: who you are, why you’re concerned about the bill, and what you would like to see changed. Include your full name and contact information so they can see that you’re a constituent. Ask for a response. Send it to the Washington, D.C. office since that’s where the majority of the policy staff work.

For every real letter that an office receives about an issue, they tend to assume that about 10 constituents feel the same way but did not write in. So it’s worth it to invest some time. And the great thing is that you have two Senators, but you can send the same letter to both of them – small tweaks may be required if they have different positions on the bill, but aside from that you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

Next Steps

Once you’ve made your initial contact with an office, you can always follow up with an email or phone call when something happens with the bill. If it’s voted out of the Senate and goes to the House, you’ll need to shift your efforts to your Representative and possibly update your knowledge of the bill if it was amended during the Senate process.

Any Questions?

If you have any questions about the legislation itself, drop us a note at Autumn’s post. If you have any questions about how to make your voice heard, ask in the comments here. We’re happy to help, and if we don’t know, we’ll find out.

[Image by riesma pawestri.]

Written by Skye Kilaen

Skye Kilaen began sewing at an early age and eco-rabble-rousing shortly after that. Many years later, someone finally told her that there are books about how to make quilts. Life was never the same. In fact, she spent more on her sewing machine than her car. Bringing her green and crafty passions back together, Skye is now happily discovering ways to create beautiful and useful objects using thrifted and sustainable materials. No, that's not just an excuse to visit Goodwill more often. Honest.


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  1. Your advice is wonderful, Skye Kilaen. Thank you for your clarity. I think a visit to my Senate office is next. You made it sound so easy and you inspire me.

    I have read tons about the bill (both sides). Here are the best links I found about it:

    1) NY Times article, it’s a wonderful read– it’s only one page, and worthwhile for anyone. Concrete reasons on how exactly this bill is harmful and what the best way to resolve it is (also great to read the public’s comments!):

    2) 40 minute interview with Brad Holland (SO good. Can’t stress it enough that the public should listen to this):


    3) A list of letters you can send to Congress, by email or paper snail mail:

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