Calls to re­vamp a ‘ relic’ agency

Copy­right Of­fice’s out­dated tech­nol­ogy and pro­ce­dures spur ac­tion by law­mak­ers.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Colin Diers­ing

WASHINGTON — Aviva Kemp­ner just wanted to buy a song.

To f ind out who owned the song so she could buy the rights to use it, Kemp­ner turned to the Copy­right Of­fice, an ob­scure, cen­tury- old fed­eral bureau. It’s re­spon­si­ble for the le­gal un­der­pin­nings of the copy­right in­dus­try, which in­cludes those seek­ing to pro­tect con­tent as di­verse as Hol­ly­wood movies and in­di­vid­ual na­ture pho­to­graphs.

To f ind the records she needed, the doc­u­men­tary f ilm­maker, who tells sto­ries of Jewish he­roes, has to send some­one in per­son to the Copy­right Of­fice head­quar­ters in Washington to look through hard copies of old doc­u­ments.

She could hire Copy­right Of­fice staff, but the charge is $ 200 an hour and it takes at least six weeks to re­spond. Plus, what they turn up might be out­dated be­cause up­dated in­for­ma­tion must be sub­mit­ted on pa­per, which can take more than 18 months to process.

Kemp­ner es­ti­mated that deal­ing with the of­fice’s in­eff icien­cies some­times adds weeks to pro­duc­tion, drain­ing staff time and re­sources for an in­de­pen­dent f ilm­maker. Janet Fries, a copy­right at­tor­ney who rep­re­sents Kemp­ner pro bono, calls her ex­pe­ri­ence with the of­fice “very typ­i­cal.”

“Ev­ery time, it’s like pulling teeth,” Kemp­ner said. “It’s just ex­as­per­at­ing.”

Those who deal with the of­fice said its out­dated tech­nol­ogy and pro­ce­dures in­creas­ingly in­ter­fere with their abil­ity to buy, sell and pro­tect copy­righted works.

Now, some in Congress are push­ing to mod­ern­ize the Copy­right Of­fice, tak­ing it from a 19th cen­tury relic that op­er­ates out of a cramped, pa­per- strewn of­fice into a gov­ern­ment of­fice that can ef­fi­ciently ad­dress the needs of the tril­lion- dol­lar U. S. copy­right in­dus­try.

The Copy­right Of­fice was cre­ated in 1897 as a part of the Li­brary of Congress to help the li­brary build a col­lec­tion of pub­lished works.

The li­brar­ian of Congress still ap­points the register of copy­rights and ap­proves off ice poli­cies. The Copy­right

Of­fice’s head­quar­ters are in a li­brary build­ing, and its in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, bud­get and hu­man re­sources are run through the li­brary.

“It’s like if my law of­fice was lo­cated in Star­bucks and I was shar­ing their IT sys­tems and their ser­vices,” said copy­right at­tor­ney Dina LaPolt.

Maria Pal­lante, head of the Copy­right Of­fice, has re­peat­edly tes­ti­fied to Congress and spo­ken pub­licly about the need to up­date IT sys­tems and of­fice poli­cies.

This year, Pal­lante launched some­thing of a cru­sade to sep­a­rate the of­fice from the li­brary, ar­gu­ing pub­licly for the f irst time that the of­fice needs in­de­pen­dence. With­out it, for­mer Copy­right Of­fice staff say, there’s not much she can do to push the of­fice into the 21st cen­tury be­cause she has min­i­mal con­trol over IT staff and no in­de­pen­dent au­thor­ity to re­quest money to up­date the of­fice.

Pal­lante has won ad­mir­ers and al­lies in Congress. Two mem­bers of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, which has over­sight of the of­fice, an­nounced leg­is­la­tion this month that would make the of­fice in­de­pen­dent.

“The cur­rent sys­tem is re­ally a relic,” Lisa Dun­ner, a copy­right lawyer and chair­woman of the Amer­i­can Bar Assn. sec­tion of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty law. “The world is chang­ing, and the Copy­right Of­fice isn’t.”

Ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives and cre­ators, the sys­tem dis­cour­ages groups from reg­is­ter­ing their copy­rights.

Some song­writ­ers and mak­ers of stan­dard­ized tests de­lay or avoid reg­is­ter­ing be­cause they do not trust the of­fice’s com­puter se­cu­rity. News­pa­pers must be sub­mit­ted in the form of costly and in­creas­ingly re- dun­dant mi­cro­fiche, driv­ing some to avoid reg­is­ter­ing al­to­gether. Oth­ers sim­ply get fed up with the of­fice’s clunky reg­is­tra­tion process.

When cre­ators don’t register, peo­ple like Kemp­ner strug­gle to f ind an owner if they want to buy a work. Skip­ping reg­is­tra­tion also se­verely lim­its the le­gal re­course cre­ators can pur­sue if their work is used il­le­gally.

Fur­ther hur­dles await those who do register. The process for record­ing changes in copy­right own­er­ship, for ex­am­ple, still re­quires forms to be sub­mit­ted by pa­per and en­tered man­u­ally by of­fice staff.

A pi­lot pro­ject al­lows ap­pli­cants to send in some in­for­ma­tion by mail­ing in a USB stick. This speeds the up­dates some­what, but off ice staff still have to copy and paste in­for­ma­tion man­u­ally into the data­base.

Ef­forts to bring the off ice’s record­ing pro­cesses online date to 2008, but the in­fra­struc­ture still has not been built. A lawyer in the of­fice is at­tempt­ing to de­sign a data­base f irst re­quested in 2010.

By con­trast, the Patent and Trade­mark Of­fice, which uses an en­tirely elec­tronic sys­tem to deal with sim­i­lar doc­u­ments, pro­cessed about 43 times as many doc­u­ments with a slightly smaller staff, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Robert Brauneis. Mary­beth Peters, for­mer register of copy­rights, re­called that when the of­fice ini­tially moved much of its pro­cess­ing online, she was de­nied per­mis­sion to build an in­de­pen­dent IT staff that would fo­cus on Copy­right Of­fice needs. Pal­lante now has an IT staff of 23, whom she de­scribes pri­mar­ily as li­aisons to the li­brary’s much larger IT staff. She has no au­thor­ity over the larger staff and de­scribed a “break­down in com­mu­ni­ca­tion” about IT with the li­brary in a re­cent Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port. “The Li­brary of Congress has as its mis­sion to share with the world these works, but the Copy­right Of­fice has as its mis­sion the preser­va­tion and pro­tec­tion of these cre­ative works,” said U. S. Rep. Judy Chu ( D- Monterey Park), who has been ac­tive on the topic. “These are op­po­site types of func­tions.” Up­dat­ing tech­nol­ogy would re­quire ad­di­tional re­sources, but bud­get re­quests get fil­tered through the li­brary. “One of the big­gest prob­lems for any­one who runs the Copy­right Of­fice is that you don’t con­trol your of­fice; your bud­get is what the li­brary de­cides to send for­ward,” Peters said. The li­brar­ian also has fi­nal say on any reg­u­la­tions the of­fice is­sues, which raises con­cerns among some. “On cer­tain bedrock con­tem­po­rary is­sues ... the dig­i­tal era has driven a wedge be­tween the in­ter­ests of li­braries and rights hold­ers,” for­mer Copy­right Of­fice em­ployee Mary Rasen­berger, now ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Au­thors Guild, said at a con­gres­sional hear­ing. Ac­cord­ing to sup­port­ers, the pend­ing leg­is­la­tion would ad­dress many of these chal­lenges. But it faces ob­sta­cles. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has not weighed in on whether it will sup­port the ef­fort, and some mem­bers of Congress may pre­fer pro­pos­als that would com­bine the of­fice with other in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty of­fices or put it into the Depart­ment of Com­merce, which Pal­lante op­poses. The two rep­re­sen­ta­tives who drafted the lan­guage both say they hope to pass the bill by the end of this con­gres­sional ses­sion, Jan. 3, 2017. June Be­sek, a Columbia Law School pro­fes­sor and copy­right ex­pert, said she wants a so­lu­tion soon. “Nowis the time to turn it into a 21st cen­tury Copy­right Of­fice,” she said, “be­cause oth­er­wise, we’ll be do­ing it just in time for the 22nd cen­tury.”

Alexan­dra Wyman I nvision

MARIA PAL­LANTE, head of the Copy­right Of­fice, has tes­tif ied to Congress and spo­ken pub­licly about the need to up­date IT sys­tems and off ice poli­cies.

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