In a development on the road to Copyright Office modernization, the Government Accountability Office (Congress’s watchdog agency) recently released reports on its studies of both the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress, which houses the Copyright Office. The report on the Library, entitled Strong Leadership Needed to Address Serious Information Technology Management Weaknesses, concluded that the Library’s technology infrastructure and planning contain “significant weaknesses” and that leadership in the area of technology is severely lacking. The report advises the Library to retain a qualified, experienced Chief Information Officer, as is required by law. A separate report on the Copyright Office concluded that the Office’s information technology was also in need of an updated IT plan, but recognized that the Office has been impeded by the Library’s IT deficiencies.

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The Authors Guild, along with a number of other copyright stakeholders, has already taken a position on the issue, asking Congress to provide the Copyright Office with additional funding to upgrade its technological infrastructure and to hire more employees, especially those with IT capabilities. The Guild also requested that Congress establish the Office as an independent agency with autonomous regulatory authority and control over its own budget and IT systems. This would be an important first step in addressing the Copyright Office’s IT deficiencies.

In its report on the Copyright Office’s information technology, the GAO stated that the Copyright Office’s mission is “hindered by technical and organizational challenges,” corroborating what many have identified as a main challenge to the Office fulfilling its mission. It also advised that more information was needed to justify the Office’s request for more funding, and suggested that the Office develop its IT strategic plan to align with that of the Library and under the Library’s supervision.

The latter suggestion overlooks the primary problem with the Copyright Office’s IT—it is under the Library’s thumb. One of the main structural obstacles the Copyright Office faces today is the fact that it is a dependent agency within the Library of Congress. That arrangement made sense when it was established in 1890 and copyright deposits helped the Library build its collection, but it’s no longer compelling today, as the Copyright Office—along with its customers too—prefers electronic deposits. The U.S. Copyright Office simply cannot serve its increasingly high-tech customers in the copyright and technology industries, which are so crucial to our national economy today, within the confines of the Library’s IT systems.

Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante summed up these structural challenges in her response to a draft of the GAO report: “As Register, I must question whether this paradigm is the best way to meet the objectives of the copyright system, particularly because, by GAO’s own estimation, the Library’s IT management presents serious and far-reaching deficiencies—many of which have negatively impacted the Copyright Office’s public service in recent years.” She then underscored the importance of a robust technology infrastructure: “As we move further into the twenty-first century, it has become clear to everyone who comes into contact with the copyright law that the Copyright Office must evolve from a small department of public record to a digitally-savvy administrator of intellectual property rights, remedies, and commercial information.”

The Copyright Office’s evolution also demands increased autonomy. It needs to be established as an independent agency with the authority to issue authoritative interpretations of copyright law. In recent years, the pace of technological change has far outstripped that of the legislative process, leaving courts to struggle with applying a law written in a pre-digital era to situations it was never intended to address.

To that end, Register Pallante wrote a March 23 letter to the House Judiciary Committee requesting that Congress establish an independent copyright agency to administer the law, with a leader appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate. “An independent copyright agency,” she wrote, would “give Congress something it has never had before, a dedicated agency that is capable of absorbing more of the detail and administration of the copyright code. This is a considerable advantage for a law that is both critical to the economy and invariably complex, not only for individual members of the public, but also for the many authors, businesses, and public interest organizations that must regularly navigate and apply it.”

Pallante was also careful to note that the Office’s bid for independence shouldn’t be taken as criticism of the Library. The goal should be to make the Copyright Office “a partner with, rather than subordinate to, the Library.”

We couldn’t agree more. A Copyright Office on equal footing with our national library would be a welcome first step to the Office better serving the authors and other creators who are its clients, and to fulfilling its mission of administering the nation’s copyright law.

 

Credit: photo by Carol M. Highsmith (public domain)