The one copyright issue everyone should agree on

There is one issue in the ongoing copyright review process everyone should agree on: step one in any review of the Act needs to focus on modernizing the Copyright Office itself.  Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante has repeatedly called for support in bringing the Office into the 21st Century, and Congress seems to agree it's an issue worth taking up.  With simultaneous hearings on the functions and resources of the Copyright Office occurring on Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee and the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, agreement to modernize the Copyright Office could also bring momentum to more easily address targeted changes Congress has been examining over nearly two years of hearings on copyright law and policy.

Copyright issues tend not to split across partisan lines, though there can be a so-called "copyright/copyleft" split on certain substantive issues.  The one area many seem to agree on regardless of their other views is that the Copyright Act has become progressively less comprehensible to ordinary people at the same time that copyright issues are becoming ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives.  Some copyright academics have colorfully referred to the Copyright Act as "an obese Frankenstinian monster" and "a swollen, barnacle encrusted collection of incomprehensible prose.”  This is because nuanced, industry and technology specific compromises are routinely addressed via legislation that hard-wires soon-to-become-obsolete provisions into the Act for generations to come - long past the time both the creative industries and the technology sector have moved on.  

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This should not be so.  Copyright and the creative industries it supports play an important role in the economic, social and cultural well-being of the public.  Copyright is the foundation for a thriving and ever-expanding market of cultural, educational and scientific works, one that in 2012 contributed over one trillion dollars to the U.S. economy and directly employed 5.4 million workers. Those who rely on licensing, using, and distributing copyrighted works in their businesses multiply this economic impact.  Such important economic interests justify a dedication of specialized resources to foster continued development of these sectors for the public welfare and to facilitate smooth interactions between authors and users of copyrighted works. All of these stakeholders require a modern, efficiently functioning Copyright Office with appropriate regulatory and adjudicatory powers.  Yet as it exists today, the Office lacks administrative control over even its own budget and infrastructure needs.   Moreover, because no agency exists with comprehensive, independent rulemaking authority in the copyright sphere, issues better suited for regulatory action continue to be resolved directly in the Act, or worse – are ignored entirely.   

The Copyright Office was first established in 1897 as primarily a ministerial entity.  Over time it has steadily acquired responsibilities and today is a crucial independent policy advisor to all three branches of the government and provides important guidance on copyright matters to the public. It is inconceivable that had all these responsibilities been envisioned at the time of its creation the Office would have been structured as it is now – without the political accountability and transparency leadership by a Presidential Appointee confirmed by the Senate would provide, and without independent control over its resources and planning.   

Congress needs a responsible, well-resourced, politically accountable partner in tackling any future legislative work it might undertake:  A Next Great Copyright Office. 

Aistars is chief executive officer of the Copyright Alliance, a non-profit, non-partisan organization representing the interests of creators, producers and distributors of creative works across the spectrum of creative disciplines.  The views expressed are her own. 

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