Moving the U.S. Copyright Office Into the Digital Age

Advances in technology and the advent of the digital landscape have revolutionized the way we create, publish, and consume content. We read books on our e-readers. We stream music on our smart phones. We rent downloads of movies and television shows online from over a hundred legitimate services.  Virtually any type of content consumers desire can now be acquired legally and affordably.

In short, we live in the 21st century. So why is the U.S. Copyright Office stuck working with out of date technology?

The Copyright Office operates on a severely outdated registration and recording system. According to the Government Accountability Office, Copyright Office computers freeze “multiple times per day.” Copyright Office staff has voiced concerns about the security and integrity of the files they store. And creators describe the process of electronically registering works with the Office to be so difficult that many resort to delivering applications in physical form.

These infrastructural inadequacies have forced one of America’s most dynamic digital economies – worth 6.88 percent of the total U.S. economy and the backbone of more than 5.5 million American workers – back to pen, paper, and snail mail.

Millions of artists, illustrators, authors, photographers, poets, filmmakers, designers, musicians and technology companies are dependent on a Copyright Office willing, but ill-equipped, to serve them.

America must strengthen its Copyright Office framework to reflect the value of the copyright community it serves. The Copyright Office must function at a level commensurate with the critical nature of its work. To achieve these goals, it is critical that the Office have the right leadership to oversee the technological transformation that will finally bring the Office into the 21st century.

Last month, Congress took the first step in Copyright Office modernization. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI), along with 29 co-sponsors, introduced the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act (H.R. 1695). It passed the House Judiciary Committee and then the entire House of Representatives. Now the bill awaits action in the Senate, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), alongside Ranking Member Patrick Leahy and Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), recently introduced the companion bill, S. 1010.

The bill is simple. It would make the Register of Copyrights a Senate-confirmed government position.

Under the authority of the bill, Congressional leadership would recommend a pool of qualified Register candidates. The President of the United States would then nominate one of these candidates and the Senate would confirm the president’s nomination.

It allows Congress – and by extension the American people –  a voice in the Copyright Office. It provides transparency. And it strengthens the traditionally strong relationship between the Register and Congress.

The Copyright Office and Congress have a lot of work to do to modernize the Office to better serve its customers and the American people. The Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act is the push they need to get started.

Frank Cullen is executive director of U.S. intellectual property policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Intellectual Property Center. 

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