Copyright Office is analog in digital world, and that must change
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Recently, a great deal of attention has been dedicated to the debate over Copyright Office modernization. A handful of supporters have focused on the office's autonomy and questions regarding the manner by which future registers will be appointed. Others have concentrated on the office's internal operations and offered recommendations to help bring its outdated information technology (IT) infrastructure into the 21st century.

Hopefully, as congressional policymakers take up this issue in the coming months, they will focus on the latter set of priorities.

By now, it's widely acknowledged that the U.S. Copyright Office predominantly operates in an analog era. The online process to register copyrighted works is rather clumsy and fails to capture important metadata that would make it easier for individuals to conduct online searches of such materials. Millions of older records (i.e., those created prior to 1978) only exist in a paper-based format, making it impossible to view such records without taking a physical trip over to the Copyright Office.

And the current system of recordation still doesn't permit copyright owners to record transfers of ownership or provide other updates to existing records online.

These gaps in technology don't just limit the Copyright Office's ability to assist the Library of Congress accomplish its primary mission of cultural preservation; it also precludes important commercial transactions from occurring between licensees and copyright owners that would help incentivize future creativity.

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Over the past decade or so, online distributors of digital content — including music, video and books — have gone to great lengths to provide consumers with legitimate access to copyrighted materials in a manner that creates new revenue streams for copyright owners. The collective effort of such services has ignited the recent boom in online music streaming, given rise to the phenomenon of "binge watching" and provided the visually impaired with greater access to digital reading materials.

 

However, the ingenuity of online distributors promises to only take us so far. It's up to Congress to take us the rest of the way by setting its sights on a modernization bill that focuses on the most pressing needs of the Copyright Office — all the while disregarding ancillary recommendations that are primarily designed to achieve a certain political agenda or predetermined policy outcome.

Equally important is the need for Congress to reconfirm the overall significance of the Copyright Office and the vital role it provides to the general public by appropriating the necessary funds to cover the costs of modernization. The notion that the IT-related improvements described above can or should be funded by imposing new fees on copyright owners or users threatens the continued viability of the voluntary registration process, as well as the overarching objectives of the copyright system.

In the current political environment, stakeholders seldom agree on any given issue. The need to reform the Copyright Office so that it better meets the needs of an increasingly digital economy is that rare exception. The best starting point for achieving this objective is by equipping the Copyright Office with better IT.

Gregory Alan Barnes is general counsel for DiMA, the Digital Media Association.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.