Copyright Office under the congressional spotlight

Last Thursday, the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing to gather information about the work of the U.S. Copyright Office and to learn about the challenges the Office faces in trying to fulfill its many responsibilities. Testifying before the Committee was Maria Pallante, Register of Copyrights and Director of the Copyright Office (view Pallante’s testimony (pdf)). Pallante gave a thorough overview of the Office’s administrative, public policy and regulatory functions, and highlighted a number of ways in which the Office’s structure and position within the federal bureaucracy create inefficiencies in its day-to-day operations. Pallante described these inefficiencies as symptoms of a larger problem: The 1976 Copyright Act vested the Office with the resources and authority it needed to thrive in an analog world, but it failed to anticipate the new needs the Office would develop in adjusting to a digital world.

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Although the Office’s registration system–the system by which it registers copyright claims–was brought online in 2008, Pallante describes it as nothing more than a 20th century system presented in a 21st century format. The Office’s recordation system–the process by which it records copyright documents–is still completed manually and has not been updated for decades. Pallante considers fully digitizing the registration and recordation functions of the Copyright Office a top priority:

From an operational standpoint, the Office’s electronic registration system was fully implemented in 2008 by adapting off-the-shelf software. It was designed to transpose the paper-based system of the 20th century into an electronic interface, and it accomplished that goal. However, as technology continues to move ahead we must continue to evaluate and implement improvements. Both the registration and recordation systems need to be increasingly flexible to meet the rapidly changing needs of a digital marketplace.

Despite Pallante’s commitment to updating these systems, she cited her lack of administrative autonomy within the Library of Congress and her Office’s tightening budget as significant impediments to achieving this goal. Several members of the Committee suggested that the Office would have greater latitude to update its operations for the digital age if it were moved out from under the authority of the Library of Congress (LOC). While Pallante did not explicitly support this idea, she was receptive to suggestions from members of the Subcommittee that her office carries out very specialized functions that differ from those that are carried out by the rest of the LOC. Overall, Pallante seemed open to–if not supportive of–having a longer policy discussion on the proper position of the Copyright Office within the federal government.

In addition to providing insight into the inner-workings of the copyright office, the hearing continued the policy discussion on the statutory and regulatory frameworks that govern the process of documenting a copyright. As the Judiciary Committee continues to review the copyright law, it will be interesting to see if it further examines statutory and regulatory changes to the authority and structure of the Copyright Office.

About Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Office for Information Technology Policy.

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