American Innovators Deserve a Modern Copyright System

Posted by J. Scott Evans, Trademark Director and Associate General Counsel

Tech advancements are changing the way content is managed and distributed for nearly every purpose, but the U.S. Copyright Office has fallen behind. As someone who has worked on trademark and copyright issues for over two decades, I recognize the necessity of modernizing the copyright system in the United States.

Getting new copyrights registered and finding information about existing copyrights is not easy, and can become a major obstacle for those looking to create and protect their intellectual property without infringing on someone else’s. Given the Copyright Office’s importance to the creative process, the current copyright system does not do justice to the community it serves.

With citizens now accustomed to accessing content anytime and from anywhere, historic distribution models are no longer serviceable. Although the Copyright Office is currently undergoing a digitization project, the effort needs to go further. Rather than just merging the newly digitized data into the existing record system, the information should be repurposed into a more modern, easy-to-use database.

The current system is so difficult to use that it discourages people from using it at all, leading to many hours spent in courtrooms for those who have inadvertently misused copyrighted material. Making an investment now in a modernized copyright system with a better user experience would save a huge amount of time and money that is currently spent on avoidable legal issues.

One of the basic reasons to have a copyright system in the first place is to prevent these legal conflicts. If the Copyright Office had a robust and innovative operations system, that supports the legal system already in place, people would use it. At this point, too many people don’t even know the search system exists, much less how best to use it. Ideally, the Copyright Office should adopt a modern, cloud-based system with a simplified search process.

It would be worth the front-end cost to establish a new system for the improved user experience alone, but this issue goes deeper than that. Modernizing the Copyright Office is about equipping the next generation to protect their intellectual property.

And on a global level, for the United States to be a world leader in innovation, we need a world-class copyright system to foster the necessary creative environment. The Copyright Office needs to follow the lead of other offices that manage rights protection systems like the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the EU trademark office (OHIM) that both have robust and efficient databases and tools to assist their users. If the U.S. Copyright Office doesn’t modernize, it could seriously jeopardize future creative leadership because there is no system at this point that works efficiently for the creative community.

Apart from the ongoing debate over whether or not the Copyright Office should move out from under the jurisdiction of the Library of Congress, the system is long overdue for an update. It is also time for Congress to revisit the Copyright Act and make the revisions necessary to bring the U.S. copyright law in line with current technological innovation. Government organizations have an obligation to adequately meet the needs of the modern citizens they serve, and the current copyright system simply doesn’t meet citizens’ needs.