Backlog At The Copyright Office Highlights Massive Problem With The System
from the it-doesn't-scale dept
As you hopefully know, you don’t need to register to get a copyright these days (and haven’t since 1976), but you can still register, and need to do so if you want to sue someone else for damages. So, professional creators still register copyright on pretty much everything they do — though the process is still a bit unclear even to the experts. At the recent copyright conference at Santa Clara University, one of the more amusing moments was when someone asked about registering blog posts and how that could/should be done — and a bunch of the world’s foremost experts in copyright law (including multiple representatives from the Copyright Office) effectively threw up their hands and said they had no clue what actually needed to be registered and how. It resulted in a lot of rather awkward laughter from folks in the room.
Of course, unlike the Patent Office, where there’s at least some review, the Copyright Office registration process is about as close to a rubber stamp as can be. Yet, it appears that the rubber stamp has gotten a little slow. The Washington Post has a nice article about the growing backlog at the office, causing delays in processing time to reach nearly 18 months. The main cause of the delay? A complex computer system that was supposed to speed things up. Somehow, that doesn’t seem surprising.
Of course, there are a few oddities in the article. First, the Copyright Office claims it can’t just staff up to deal with the backlog because it takes a year to train someone. That seems a bit excessive for what’s pretty close to a rubber stamp process. Second, the article totally glosses over an important little tidbit:
The delays do not appear to be hampering the business of the major publishing houses or those willing to spend $685 for a “special handling fee” that expedites registration.
That seems rather important, because you could easily make the argument that the Copyright Office has every incentive in the world to let that backlog and its $45 applications pile up to encourage “serious” professionals to file the expedited $685 option.
Third, because it’s a newspaper article, it has to include a heart-wrenching story of someone impacted by this, and so we get:
Marissa Ditkowsky, a Long Island teenager, has been checking her mailbox for 15 months for the copyright registration for three songs she wrote, recorded and sent on a compact disc to the federal government.
“We lost a whole year,” said her mother, Alita, who wants to launch her guitar-strumming daughter on a music career. At 14, Marissa is too young to appear on “American Idol.” Instead, she wants to sing her songs during open-mike nights at local clubs and make a professional demo she can shop to music companies.
But Alita Ditkowsky does not want her daughter to perform without a copyright, because she fears that Marissa’s songs are so good, someone else will steal them. She said she learned that lesson years ago while trying to get a job at an advertising agency.
“They asked me to write an ad for the Schick electric shaver,” Ditkowsky said. “So one day in my car, I hear this radio spot I had wrote for the Schick electric shaver. It was my commercial, word for word. They used it, didn’t pay me for it, didn’t even hire me. But legally, I had no recourse.”
Yikes. She should be a lot more worried about obscurity than anyone taking her songs. Keeping her daughter away from performing open mic nights just because they haven’t received the registration seems silly and incredibly counterproductive. She would still hold the copyright on the songs, she would just be limited in what she could sue over until the registration is official. Claiming that she would have “no recourse” is incorrect. The “lost year” is their own fault, not the fault of the Copyright Office.
Either way, this whole thing highlights yet another problem of any gov’t granted monopoly system: the wasteful bureaucracy involved — even in just rubber stamping things. Such bureaucracies simply don’t scale as activity increases, and since we live in this world where the Copyright industry has continually tried to “educate” the public about the vast importance of securing copyrights on everything, it’s no surprise that the Copyright Office is overwhelmed — even with the computer system problems.