December 3, 2015

U.S. Copyright Office Deserves 21st Century Upgrade

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives House Administration Committee held a hearing on “Improving Customer Service for the Copyright Community: Ensuring the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress are able to meet the demands of the digital age.” The hearing was prompted by a blistering report issued in March by the Government Accountability Office, finding that the Library of Congress had an IT system with no strategic plan, no Chief Information Officer, no inventory of its IT equipment, and no idea how much money it was spending annually on IT.

All told, the report made 31 recommendations for how to fix the Library’s systems.  Unfortunately, to date, none of the recommendations have been fully implemented.

Perhaps, then, it should not have been a surprise that a Library IT failure in September caused the Copyright Office’s online registration system to go down for over a week.

The American people and companies who use the Copyright Office deserve better.  It is critically important that the Office is provided the ability to implement the technical and IT upgrades that will bring it into the 21st Century.

This week’s hearing featured David Mao, Acting Librarian of Congress; Maria Pallante, Register of Copyrights; and Joel Willemssen of GAO who led the study and March report.

Certainly, the Acting Librarian has many challenges to address and his mission is to ensure that the Library maintains its place as an important repository of American culture and creative expression. And the challenges he faces are are indeed great.  It is important to note, as Register Pallente stated in her testimony, that Congress originally created the Copyright Office to separate the copyright functions from the Library functions, but that over time they have been merged back together. But the Library’s mission is distinct from that of the Copyright Office, and it is spread over a variety of services from serving the blind and physically handicapped, a law library, the Congressional Research Service, and the American Folklife Center, just to name a few. These are all important and valuable, but the type of IT services they need are completely different from the registration and recordation functions of the Copyright Office.

The Copyright Office laid out in detail its vision for 21st Century services in a strategic plan through 2020. That plan is the next step in a process that began almost five years ago and involved extensive opportunities for input from the public.   It is responsive to those comments, providing specific goals in order to achieve the functionality that the users of the Copyright Office seek and deserve.

As Joel Willemssen said in the course of his testimony, the Copyright Office should have the authority to set for itself the goals of its mission critical IT systems. It is only logical that the people who set the goals—and who will have to work with the system day-in and day-out—also be the ones who implement and oversee that system. The Register made this point poignantly, with reference to the Library’s systematic failures to support the Copyright Office when she wondered aloud, “Why should our copyright customers feel satisfied by a renewed commitment to the same central process that just failed us so miserably? What we are asking for is the autonomy to make sure that IT is intertwined with our business and legal expertise.”

The Copyright Office’s administration of the law helps to support an industry that adds over $1 trillion to the U.S. economy every year. But it is currently subservient to the Library’s discretion, not just on IT, but budget, human resources, and every essential aspect of its operation. The result is that the systems of the Copyright Office are woefully outdated; stakeholders and policymakers unanimously agree that the Copyright Office must modernize. Congress has a perfect opportunity to give the Copyright Office the autonomy it needs to modernize according to its vision and the demands of its customers to better serve the American people and industry. That opportunity should not be missed.

Frank Cullen is Executive Director of U.S. Intellectual Property Policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Intellectual Property Center.

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