Seal of the United States Copyright Office, in...

Seal of the United States Copyright Office.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The copyright registration system was temporarily sent back to the last century last week, as the Library of Congress computer took an extended summer slumber following some routine maintenance. Paper registrations replaced their digital counterparts for more than one week as federal IT workers struggled to get the system back online.

Although business has now returned to normal, the glaring need for copyright modernization could not be more clearly exemplified.

Most of us probably don’t think of the Copyright Office in terms of customer service and revenue, but that’s exactly what is at stake when there’s a disruption to the service. The Washington Post reports that the cost of the outage ran high into the hundreds of thousands of dollars with tens of thousands of hopeful copyright registrants – customers – forced to delay their applications or revert to pen and paper to complete the process.

Evidently, this is unacceptable in a 21st-century government office serving customers in a world that increasingly conducts most of its business online. Thankfully, the case has already been made for extensive modernization of the country’s copyright system, not least by Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante, on numerous occasions.

Most recently, in March of this year, the Government Accountability Office released a report that once again highlighted inherent technological weaknesses at the Library of Congress. After flagging these concerns time and time again, one of the worst case scenarios has now provided that unfortunate “told you so” moment that all organizations dread.

The plea now must be if not for those working within the Copyright Office, pursue modernization for the creators that they serve.

America’s creative industries rely on copyright registration to make the ownership of their works a matter of public record. The registration process may seem like a simple formality to some, but it sets the concept of copyright in stone – or, more appropriately now, in bits and bytes – and provides the basis for legal action, including statutory damages and attorney’s fees for unlicensed use. If it meets the required deadline for registration, the record of registration is also considered face-value evidence that the registrant is the owner of the work in a court of law.

Allowing such an important system to not only fall into disrepair but be outside of the Copyright Office’s reach to fix it is an untenable position. The potential for a modern system to benefit both creators and the general public, who frequently have questions about copyright status and ownership, is enormous, yet the organization has no way to realize that potential as it is currently structured.

It’s important to note at this point that the logic of the Copyright Office being so tethered to the Library of Congress infrastructure is itself questionable. Terry Hart does an excellent job dissecting the history of that association here, highlighting yet another reason to revisit how the copyright system is managed.

While the Library of Congress has its own need to update its IT, for the Copyright Office it is fundamental to the service they provide. By extension, it is fundamental to the creative economy, which is worth $1.1 trillion to the country’s GDP,  that this service is executed reliably and efficiently. The protection it affords creators is simply too important to ignore.

In terms of both technology and mission, the U.S. Copyright Office needs to go from lessee to landlord. The stakes are simply too high to ignore the issue any longer, as this outage provides a sharp reminder.