Democracy & Technology Blog Modernize the Copyright Office

The U.S. Copyright Office would be given greater autonomy pursuant to a proposal unveiled by two members of Congress last week, and the agency’s Director would be appointed for a ten year term by the President upon the advice of a bipartisan, bicameral commission and with the consent of the Senate.

The Copyright Office was established as a separate department in the Library of Congress in 1897. The head of the Copyright Office, known as the Register of Copyrights, serves at the pleasure of the Librarian of Congress. But the Copyright Office has outgrown the Library of Congress. For example, the Library of Congress hasn’t delivered the necessary information technology environment so the Copyright Office can meet or exceed customer expectations in the Digital Age.

An efficient copyright system increases the supply of creative content by incentivizing content creators and rewarding investors who underwrite the cost of bringing the creations to market. The Copyright Office must make extensive use of IT to process copyright registration applications, preserve deposited copies of copyrighted works and maintain records of the transfer of copyright ownership. If the Copyright Office fails, there could be unintended consequences for the copyright system.

In March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found “significant weaknesses” in how the Library of Congress manages it’s IT resources. (A subsequent report focused on related shortcomings at the Copyright Office.) Among other things, the Library of Congress doesn’t have an IT strategic plan, is not managing its IT investments effectively and doesn’t have the “leadership” needed to address it’s IT management weaknesses. Modern IT is necessary, in part, so the public can have easy electronic access to information on copyright registrations and changes in copyright ownership.

Greater autonomy would allow the Copyright Office to move forward by acquiring its own resources and by focusing on its own specific mission given that GAO is recommending that the Library of Congress needs to exert more centralized control to better address it’s own IT shortcomings with less autonomy for the more forward-thinking Copyright Office.
The discussion draft is entitled the Copyright Office for the Digital Economy Act or CODE Act, and it represents a good starting point for discussions about breaking this IT logjam. An efficient Copyright Office is a prerequisite for a dynamic marketplace in creative content. Although it may have seemed logical in 1897 to locate the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress, it seems difficult to make that connection in 2015.

Hance Haney

Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney served as Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.