Important examination of what a 21st century copyright office needs

Copyright legislation is rarely partisan, but it can often become as heated and controversial among industry participants as any partisan issue.  But whatever position one has on copyright policy, the copyright laws ‒ and the books, movies, music, photographs, and other works protected by copyright ‒ unquestionably have a dramatic impact on our economy.  One frequently cited study found that the copyright industries contributed more than $1 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2013.

Today’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on “The U.S. Copyright Office: Its Functions and Resources” is refreshing because it charts promising new territory.  And because everyone benefits from a modern, well-functioning Copyright Office, there is real opportunity that this hearing may lead not only to bipartisan cooperation, but to cooperation among and between industries that often find themselves at odds.

The Office has an incredibly important, but often overlooked, role in making the system work both for owners and users.  It examines and registers copyrights, records ownership information, administers statutory licenses and provides policy advice to Congress.  These functions are as crucial for owners to protect their works as they are for those who want to use works owned by others. 

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A 21st-century Copyright Office could make tremendous progress in helping those who create works, those who license works to use in new projects, and those of us who simply enjoy what others have created.  But the Office must have the authority and funding it needs to improve the current system.  By modernizing and leveraging more advanced technology, the Office can facilitate licensing in a manner that will benefit everyone. 

The Copyright Office is run by the Register of Copyrights, who is appointed and supervised by the Librarian of Congress.  Today’s hearing offers an opportunity to explore questions that are too often left unexamined: How should the Office be funded?  Should the Register of Copyrights be a position nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate?  What structure and authority will best position the Office to further the objectives laid out in the Constitution? 

We have both worked closely with, and benefited from, the policy expertise that exists in the Copyright Office, the Patent and Trademark Office, and elsewhere in the executive branch.  We have no doubt that as the discussion unfolds, the perspectives of each agency with a role in intellectual property policy and protection will be important to the analysis.   

Chairman Goodlatte (R-Va.) has held nearly 20 hearings as part of the Committee’s copyright review.  Many hearings have revealed some dissatisfaction with the current copyright laws, but no clear path to the cross-industry agreement needed for successful legislation.  

Ensuring that the Copyright Office has the resources and authority needed to make the system work effectively is an objective that can garner consensus.  And, if it does, may well improve all aspects of the copyright system for years to come.

Today’s hearing is one well-worth watching. 

Berman served in the House from 1983 to 2013. He is a senior adviser at Covington & Burling. Cooper is of counsel at Covington & Burling and former Chief Intellectual Property and Antitrust Counsel to Sen. Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate Judiciary CommitteeThe views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the firm or its clients.