The Copyright Office is first and foremost a customer service agency. Its customers are the nation’s copyright holders—many of them individual creators such as authors—as well as copyright users. The Office works with authors and other creators to help them register their work, record transfers or assignments of copyrights, and perform the research necessary to secure licenses to use others’ work. Registration and recordation are no longer required to own a copyright, but they are necessary to enforce many rights under copyright law.
Due to lack of funding, the Office’s registration, recordation, and search technologies are sorely outdated, and those services also suffer severely from understaffing. Its paper-based recordation system is decades out of date. The records need to be digitized and integrated with the registration system so that today’s authors can easily (and electronically) register, record, and search the database. A major infusion of capital is needed to improve the IT infrastructure.
Compounding the funding problem, the Copyright Office budget must be submitted through the Library of Congress. Two bureaus with different mandates and potentially competing demands are splitting the same pool of funds—and the funding requests of the Copyright Office are frequently cut by the Library of Congress if it is determined that more money is needed in another division.
Perhaps most importantly, the Office needs the authority to issue its own regulations about the interpretation of copyright law. This is an essential policy function of the Copyright Office. Expertise in copyright law is not a requirement for the job of Librarian of Congress, and yet any regulations drafted by the Register of Copyrights by law must be issued by the Librarian. A Copyright Office with increased regulatory authority would be able to ensure that our copyright law keeps pace with technological developments—a task the legislative branch has not been able to accomplish.
For these reasons, in November 2014 the Authors Guild, along with a number of other copyright stakeholders, asked 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.
The issue is already a step nearer to a solution. In June 2015, Reps. Tom Marino and Judy Chu released a discussion draft of a bill that would give the Copyright Office the independence and autonomy it needs to effectively serve U.S. copyright holders in the digital age. Most importantly, the proposed bill would establish the U.S. Copyright Office as an independent agency. Currently, the Office is housed in the Library of Congress, which is problematic for a host of reasons, including the Library’s control of the Office’s budget, the fact that the Office is beholden to the Library’s inadequate IT infrastructure, and the potential for conflicts of interest between the Library and the copyright community.
The Office’s independence would manifest itself in another key proposal of the bill, which would allow the Copyright Office to physically move out of the Library of Congress and into a new federal building. The draft bill also suggests that the President would appoint, subject to Senate consent, a Director of the Copyright Office (replacing the office of Register of Copyrights) to serve one 10-year term.
We’ll be tracking the proposed bill’s progress with great interest.