Registration Backlog Shrinking, Copyright Office Acting Chief Says

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The Copyright Office is working to modernize its operations, Acting Register of Copyrights Maria A. Pallante said March 7.

Speaking at the public interest organization Public Knowledge's event, Toward a Copyright Office for the 21st Century, Pallante said that the office has reduced the backlog of copyright registration applications to 180,000 claims and that it is now handling over 500,000 claims a year.

Pallante--who has been acting register of copyrights since former Register Marybeth Peters retired Dec. 31 (81 PTCJ 250, 12/24/10; 80 PTCJ 647, 9/17/10)--said that the move from paper claims to an electronic filing system was a bump in the road that initially increased the backlog. However, the office is “chipping away” at any problems created by the switchover, she said. Further, Pallante said that the office has a goal of fast processing, but that speed “cannot come at the expense of quality.”

She noted that the “higher ups” in the Library of Congress have met numerous times to determine who should take over for former register Peters. The Library is considering experience, expertise, and real management experience in all potential candidates, she added.

How to Modernize the Office.

In a panel discussion on what the Copyright Office can do to become more “modernized,” Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge suggested that the office work to minimize processing delays by bringing all entries online, by making the registry more searchable and including every work already registered, and by creating a visual registry.

Weinberg also urged that the office “design for the future,” noting that any system must be continuously updated as new technologies and practices emerge.

Leila Boujnane, chief executive officer of Idee Inc., which runs a “reverse search engine” for images, agreed with Weinberg's suggestion about a visual registry, saying that she would like the opportunity to submit for registration a painting or picture itself and not just a description of the image.

Pallante asked Boujnane whether, by maintaining a repository of copyrighted visual images available to the public, the Copyright Office might not risk be regarded as a contributory infringer if the images are copied. Boujnane said that the images could be held in different servers, and that a search for a particular image would simply indicate whether the image was registered.

James Cavanaugh, the national director of the American Society of Media Photographers, said that most photographers avoid seeking copyright registrations because of the sheer number of works they produce. Unlike musicians or other creators, he said, photographers often take thousands of pictures a week or month and the current process for registering those works is time consuming and can be “an extraordinary financial burden.” He suggested the office set up a system where an artist can pay an annual fee to register works.

Alternatively, he suggested that the office allow companies like Apple or Adobe to implement a software-based registration option for photographs. Photographers would be more likely to participate in such a system, he said, adding that the Copyright Office could still play a role in reviewing the registrations.

Pallante said she found Cavanaugh's proposal “very interesting,” and that she would welcome efforts to encourage copyright registration by those who might be reluctant to register. However, she said that a lot of photographers do not have an interest in registering their works, instead putting their works in the creative commons.

Jule Sigall, associate general counsel of copyrights at Microsoft Corp., disagreed with Pallante, stating that the creative commons is an alternative to copyrights, but that, if Copyright Office procedures were simpler and cheaper, people would be interested in registering their works with the office to receive the protection. He added that, for his company, the amount of work and fees are not an issue.

Expanding on Cavanaugh's idea, Sigall suggested that the Copyright Office explore other options, such as allowing works to be registered by the Copyright Clearance Center. Pallante said that copyright registration is inherently the government's role, and that this role “should not be discarded.”

Another common complaint among the panelists was the difficulty of searching for copyright registrations on the office's website. Boujnane equated such searches with “banging your head against a cement wall.” Pallante simply replied that the Copyright Office's primary role is to serve as a registry, not to provide searching tools.

Changing the Way Washington Works.

In his keynote address, Federal Technology Office of the Office of Science and Technology Policy Aneesh Chopra focused on President Obama's drive towards a more open and transparent government.

He said that the most important infrastructure improvements needed are in the government's use of internet and wireless technologies. In the context of open government, there are three technology policies that are not currently utilized to their fullest, Chopra said: precompetitive research and development collaborations, open data, and voluntary consensus-driven standards.

Also speaking at the event were Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge, Tracey Armstrong, president of the Copyright Clearance Center, Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs, and James Love, executive director of Knowledge Ecology International.

By Nathan Pollard

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