Imagining the Future of the Copyright Office

The U.S. Copyright Office sits within the Library of Congress. It uses the Library’s IT infrastructure and is subject to the Library’s budget process, and the decisions it makes are subject to the Librarian of Congress’s approval, although that’s usually a rubber stamp. When James Billington retired as Librarian of Congress last September, many viewed it as a long-overdue opportunity to modernize the Copyright Office for the digital age. Now copyright stakeholders are allowing themselves to imagine what a future Copyright Office might be and do for the American copyright system.

At a half-day conference held yesterday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, panels of experts discussed their visions for a Copyright Office for the 21st century.  The speakers were major copyright heavyweights, including Pam Samuelson of UC Berkeley, Chris Sprigman of NYU, William Patry of Google, music industry expert Jim Griffin, Jeff Sedlik of the PLUS photography rights standards initiative, Trow Dow of Disney, Mary Rasenberger of the Authors Guild, Matt Schruers of CCIA, Sandra Aistars of George Mason Law School, and various others — but equally many experts in the audience. The conference was sponsored by the Duke University Law School Center for Innovation Policy and the New York University Law School’s Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy.

Although no one from the Copyright Office spoke on the panels, a few staffers attended. Many worthwhile ideas were discussed; one hopes that they will find their ways into actual initiatives to modernize the Office during this window of opportunity.

The speakers represented a wide range of positions on copyright, but there was a surprising level of agreement on several points. One was that the Office needs to bring in a broader range of expertise in order to properly advise Congress on the complexities of copyright in the digital age. In particular, Samuelson called for hiring a Chief Technology Officer — not someone to run the Office’s IT systems, but someone who can bring expertise on digital technologies to policy discussions and recommendations.  She also called for hiring a Chief Economist and a social scientist.  No one argued with these recommendations in principle.

Another area of high-level agreement was on the need for the Office to do a much better job of managing rights metadata and unique identifiers for copyrighted works. Several people noted that the Office ought to be the first place people go for information about copyrighted works, but it’s not.

Below that shared sentiment were differences of opinion on how to implement such a scheme. Some speakers advocated the more typical and long-desired concept of a large, comprehensive rights database (an idea that, however desirable in theory, has been tried and failed repeatedly over the years).  In contrast, Chris Sprigman brought up the possibility of the Office hosting a simple identifier registry with open APIs. This would allow third-party “edge services” to perform copyright registrations and host different types of metadata according to what the market needs, while all interoperating with one another.

I mentioned a third “in-between” possibility: a central database containing a minimal set of metadata, which would also be designed to interface with third-party entities that can add value through additional metadata or other services. This is an architecture that I’ve advocated for internal use at large media companies with decentralized content repositories. While it’s desirable to make some kinds of data truly distributed among peers without an “owner” (think DNS, or more relevantly, DOI registration agencies such as CrossRef for journal articles and EIDR for video), it’s important for a single entity — like the Copyright Office — to serve as the official custodian of basic definitive information about registered copyrighted works.

There were also calls for the Office to take over more regulatory functions related to copyright, in order to offload some of the more arcane details from the legislative process — for example, the statutory license schemes in Section 111 for cable retransmissions of broadcast television or Section 115 for mechanical licenses for music. Mary Rasenberger called for more rulemakings (such as the one on Section 1201 of the Copyright Act) , which take input from the public, as opposed to the “smoke-filled room” negotiations that have led to things like the aforementioned statutory license sections. She noted that this is the way other expert agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency work.

Finally, Bill Patry (himself a veteran of the Copyright Office) wondered how all of this expertise and infrastructure would be paid for.  A fair question in any discussion of the future of the Copyright Office.

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