Copyright Modernity

Published February 21, 2017

Last week U.S. Representatives Tom Marino, Judy Chu and Barbara Comstock introduced the CODE Act. The Act would finally make the U.S. Copyright office an independent part of the legislative branch, with the related functions and legal duties being part of the Office instead of remaining part of the Library of Congress, in which the Copyright Office now sits. At least as important, the Act directs the Director to modernize copyright registration part of modernizing the office in general.

This follows another similar proposal that was recently released by the House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Ranking Member John Conyers. Across the Capitol, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and former Ranking Member Patrick Leahy have released statements in support of modernizing the Copyright Office.

Article I of the Constitution places Congress in charge of copyright policy. Before being functionally separated out in 1896, the Copyright Office was administered by the Librarian of the Library of Congress. However, the Copyright Office has continued to be housed within the Library of Congress, the location a historical artifact. The Library and the Office do not have the same mission and can even sometimes have conflicting goals, making the Office something of a second class citizen in the current structure. Yet, copyright forms a sizeable portion of the U.S. economy, including 5.5 million workers who work in copyright industries, $1.2 trillion to the nation’s GDP, and foreign sales of nearly $180 billion. All in all, core copyright industries are seven percent of the economy.

And the Copyright office itself plays a crucial role by administering the registration and recording systems, in addition to advising Congress. But the role has been neglected by a lack of interest in keeping the Office in step with the times. Creators should be able to register their works with ease, especially today when the world is mobile and run on apps, and yet it is not currently available. The public should be able to find copyright information and analyze it, making it easier to legally license copyright protected works. These functions are not currently available. With separation and independent operation the Office will be able to modernize, again sending a clear signal that copyright is an important part of the economic and online ecosystems.

The copyright office is, by law, Congress’s independent expert advisor on all copyright issues so it is helpful if the Office is free of other concerns and can focus on its core mission, including direct communications with Congress. As importantly, the Office needs to be updated technologically. The Copyright Office is part of the Internet ecosystem, and that ecosystem suffers when the Office lags on modernization.