Dogged by a crumbling IT infrastructure that’s managed by its parent agency, the Copyright Office has been pushing lawmakers to allow it to break away. And it seems that a pair of legislators have heard the office’s call.
Just last week, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., and Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., unveiled draft legislation that would move the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress and make it independent. But lawmakers still must suss out a lot of administrative details before the bill has a chance of clearing the House, let alone the upper chamber.
In particular, lawmakers need to put forth more criteria for evaluating a new IT system to ensure the “Copyright Office does not replace the existing bad IT system to another bad one,” said Keith Kupferschmid, the Software and Information Industry Association’s general counsel and senior vice president of intellectual property. Though, he said the draft bill was a good start.
Speaking on background, staff for Chu’s office said lawmakers would be shopping the draft around for several months and have not yet made decisions on what the final bill will look like. Marino’s spokesman said in an email, “We are open to adding more specific language to address a database or other IT needs where we have consensus as we move towards a final draft. This is all a starting point for discussion regarding finer points like this.”
There’s also the question of political will — would the draft bill have the juice to go to the president’s desk? The spokeswoman for the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Copyright Office and has been sympathetic to its struggles, wouldn’t comment on a draft bill. Nor would staff for California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who earlier this year in a hearing encouraged U.S. Copyright Register Maria Pallante to temper her expectations of becoming a standalone unit.
So far, the bill doesn’t have companion legislation in the Senate.
‘Just a mess’
Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office found that “serious weaknesses” in the Library of Congress’ IT system were hindering the Copyright Office’s ability to do its job. As it stands, the office’s recordation system — a public record of licensing agreements, contracts and other documents — is paper-based and is not connected with the copyright registration database. Some have expressed concerns about the cybersecurity of the office’s systems.
For Kupferschmid, modernizing the Copyright Office is critical. In February, he outlined four alternatives to the office’s current structure in a report for SIIA: give the office more autonomy; make it a free-standing, independent agency; move the office into the Patent and Trademark Office within the Commerce Department; or create a new intellectual property office with USPTO that exists outside the Commerce Department.
Each plan offers unique challenges, he said. The report calls on Congress to evaluate all options to modernize the office.
“We’ve got a really, really bad situation at the Copyright Office,” Kupferschmid told FedScoop last month. “Their IT system is absolutely just a mess, and there’s other problems that need to be solved. And they need to be solved yesterday.”
The only unacceptable option, he said, is the status quo.
“This is a very complex issue. There are a lot of moving parts here. And it can be very complicated. And it can get bogged down,” he said.
But even if Copyright does split from the Library of Congress, Michael Heaney, a University of Michigan political sociologist, told FedScoop last month it may not be a panacea for the office’s IT woes.
“It’s actually very common for politicians to use the reorganization of an agency as a way of trying to argue that they’re making some kind of change or reform,” he said.
He pointed to former President George W. Bush’s creation of the Department of Homeland Security following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And he said there’s not a lot of evidence that the reorganization has changed how the agencies operate.
“The lesson is it generally doesn’t do much,” he said. “Where [an agency] is positioned in the government alone is not usually a big determinate of agency behavior.”
The solution could be as easy as giving the office more funding, he said. In fiscal year 2013, the office had a budget of $44.2 million, a small fraction of fellow intellectual property agency U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s $2.8 billion budget.
Looking ahead, Kupferschmid said in a recent email he hoped that the draft bill wouldn’t get mired in politics or copyright policy disagreements.
“This discussion draft is by no means a finished product. Nor was it meant to be,” he said in an email. “It does serve as a good platform for further discussion.”
“The objective here is to fix and modernize the Office’s infrastructure, and it’s important that stakeholders focus on that,” Kupferschmid said.