The Road to Copyright Office Modernization Doesn’t Go Through a Data Center

Over the past several years, a robust public record has been developed by the US Copyright Office, its users, and copyright owners about the acute need for modernizing the Office’s Information Technology (IT) services. The eCO system for registering works online is not always intuitive and can sometimes be wonky, the recordation system still relies on physical forms sent by mail to be manually scanned and entered into the database, and the system for searching ownership and registration information provides only the most minimal levels of usefulness.

Reflecting this public record, the Copyright Office released a five-year Strategic Plan this past December, followed by a Provisional Information Technology Modernization Plan and Cost Analysis in March. The plan, prepared at the request of the House Committee on Appropriations (and released three months early), would not only bring the Office’s important services up to date, but also position the Office to stay abreast of future technological changes. For example, a modernized Office could allow easy registration via mobile devices and apps, or provide APIs that would allow platforms to link to registration and ownership information, presenting it in a variety of ways and linking it with private databases to provide more robust information to end users.

Importantly, the plan calls for a cloud-first strategy to create a nimble, flexible, and forward-looking system that would incentivize registration of works and recordation of ownership information. A searchable database of copyright registration and ownership information enables database users to determine authorship and other information about works, contact owners for licensing or other usage, and determine whether works are in the public domain and freely useable. Moreover, a modern, robust copyright registration and recordation system will facilitate additional business investment and entrepreneurship along with reducing transaction costs and other marketplace inefficiencies, leading to long-term economic growth and cultural benefits.

But the Copyright Office can’t move into the future if it remains tied to the past.

Recently, the House Appropriations Committee, in its Committee report for next year’s budget, directed “the Copyright Office to utilize the [Library of Congress’s] new hosting facility as the primary data center for infrastructure support including data storage and mission oriented software applications.” Fortunately, the Senate Appropriations Committee did not include a similar directive, but it did, like the House Committee, chide the Copyright Office for not collaborating with the Library of Congress’s Chief Information Officer in developing its IT Modernization Plan.

In 2016, we should question why any government agency is building its own data center. Indeed, the Executive Branch has adopted a cloud-first strategy for its own agencies, focusing on closing data centers or reducing their use. A GAO report released in March revealed that since implementing this policy, Executive Branch agencies have reported savings and cost avoidances of nearly $3 billion in taxpayer money, and predict $5 billion more in savings by 2019.

The Copyright Office’s plan uses a similar cloud-first approach for many of the same reasons. Requiring it to use the Library’s data center (not yet built) would remove the flexibility and cost-effectiveness inherent in the Copyright Office’s IT plan without resulting in any synergies or savings.

Above all, the House Appropriations Committee’s language highlights why the outmoded relationship between the Copyright Office and Library of Congress is hindering progress. Currently, the Office is a service unit of the Library of Congress, an arrangement borne out of historical accident. Among other things, this means that the Office is tied to the Library’s IT system. It lacks autonomy over its own IT systems and must rely on the Library’s IT department and strategy.

Last year, the GAO released a report detailing serious IT management weaknesses in the Library of Congress, caused by decades of neglect. With the nomination of a new Librarian of Congress, there is hope that the Library will give its IT the attention the public deserves from such an important national institution, but even under the best of circumstances, it will take years for the Library to get its own house in order. Its data center won’t even be completed until 2019. Even then, given the different missions between the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office, there will still be a mismatch between the two institutions regardless of how effective the new Librarian is. If the Copyright Office wasn’t hamstrung by having to go through the Library, it could have its IT Modernization Plan in place before the Library has gotten through the dozens of GAO recommendations it has to address and migrated to its new data center.

The Library of Congress and the US Copyright Office both provide vital national services. And they both have distinct IT needs and distinct IT challenges. It’s time to cut the cord so that the Copyright Office has autonomy and authority to implement and manage its own IT so that both institutions can focus best on their own needs and challenges.

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