Watching the recently ended TV series, “Mad Men,” it was amusing to be brought back to the era of chain-smoking business executives, the three martini lunch and the “secretarial pool,” but it’s no laughing matter when an agency tasked with protecting our literary and artistic works is stuck in mid-20th Century, or even in some cases, the late 19th.  

Let’s start with where the U.S. Copyright Office is housed:  in the Library of Congress.  Why?  Well, in 1890, placing it there was a convenience to help the Library build its collection of books that were deposited for registration.  Of course, this is meaningless in the electronic era and allows the Library to re-direct funding to other projects. Although knowledge of copyright law is not a requirement to be Librarian of Congress, that person is in charge of issuing copyright regulations. Congressional hearings have produced a consensus that the Copyright Office needs budget and operational autonomy to function properly.

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Next there is the antiquated system of registration.  An attempt to institute an Electronic Office Registration System in 2008, dubbed eCO, has worked about as well as the Obamacare insurance exchange.  For example, newspapers are supposed to submit their works in microfiche.  Try asking children or grandchildren under 40 about microfiche and watch the blank stares.  The result is that newspapers have stopped registering their works with the Copyright Office.  

Although the “eCO” system has helped, office staff must still manually key in content, so it takes 12 to 18 months to register a copyright.  Searching for a copyright is also still problematic under the new system.  When the Software and Information Industry Association used the universally known movie, “Godfather,” for a test search, neither the movie nor the novel it was based on appeared in the first 25 results.

Unfortunately, in Washington, government funding is often handed out in inverse proportion to its importance.  Dozens of duplicative and wasteful programs are routinely funded by Congress each year, programs that have little to do with the constitutional responsibilities of the federal government. By contrast, the copyright process, a vital protection enshrined in our Constitution, is shortchanged.

One of the remarkable statistics brought out in congressional hearings is that U.S. copyright industries add up to $1 trillion of GDP.  Another is that in 2012 there were 560,000 registration requests and a year later almost 200,000 of them were still pending.

In the Congress, Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.) are developing legislation that might address these issues.

It’s time this vital service is brought into the 21st Century with digital registration, electronically searchable databases and some budget autonomy so that a fundamental property right can be properly protected.

Hart is director of Government Relations at the American Conservative Union.