Marybeth Peters, the Register of Copyrights, is stepping down at the end of this year. That means that very soon, for the first time since 1994, there will be someone new in charge of the Copyright Office. Transitions are always an opportunity to think about setting new goals, but it seems especially appropriate at this important time in copyright policy. That is why today we are releasing our newest white paper A Copyright Office for the 21st Century: Recommendations to the New Register of Copyrights.
In 1994, when Register Peters began her tenure, less than one third of US households owned a computer and the Census Bureau was not even asking about home Internet access. There was no DMCA, Napster had not been invented, and the kids from Don’t Copy That Floppy were still kids. Since then, copyright policy has entered a radically different phase, and we need to make sure that the Copyright Office keeps up.
A top priority for the new Register of Copyrights should be modernizing the Copyright Registry. One of the central assumptions of copyright law is that it is possible to track down who owns what. Currently, that simply is not the case. The online registry is incomplete, older records are hard to search, and the new registration backlog is measured in months, if not years. The new Register must build a registry that is easily searchable, up to date, and inclusive of visual and other non-written works.
The new Register must also work to make policymaking more inclusive. Copyright policy impacts many more stakeholders today than at any other time in history. The Register cannot simply focus on the needs of large publishers, record labels, and movie studios. Instead, the Register should strive to seek out diverse viewpoints and make decisionmaking as transparent as possible.
The last recommendation is that Congress set term limits on the Register of Copyrights. Copyright policy impacts diverse, dynamic industries and constituencies. Unfortunately, every year spent as the head of the Copyright Office will make it that much harder to maintain an unvarnished connection with those groups. A Register should serve for no more than ten years.
These recommendations are only the beginning. The new Register of Copyrights will have to deal with new challenges that cannot be imagined today. Hopefully, the recommendations in our paper will help prepare the Copyright Office to meet those challenges as effectively as possible.