Monday, October 18, 2010

Privatizing U.S. Copyright Registrations?

Continuing on last week's discussion of the Copyright Principles Project, I am going to discuss one of the reform proposals being suggested by the CPP.

The CCP wants to make the copyright registration process more like the domain name registrar process. CPP: Directions for Reform, p. 26. Since many countries do not require a registration in the first place, I cannot see how this process would work. A decentralized registration process will only make copyrighted registrations more difficult to find. If you have ever tried to locate information regarding domain name registrations and owners, it is not an easy process. (In addition, some domain name registrars encourage and profit from the anonymity of its registration owners.)

There is also a more puzzling aspect – how and who would be in charge of managing copyright deposits. For obvious reasons, the Copyright Office does not post or make available online, a copy of the deposit for copyright applications. I do not believe that copyright registrars would post this information either. Therefore, all the registration would include is a title, author and possibly a description of the type of work.

The U.S. Copyright Office while often referring to itself as a record keeping office, must make some determinations on registration. It is nowhere near the rigorous standards of patent or trademark offices but a minimal review is required. It would be inappropriate for registrars to make determinations on whether the work itself is copyrightable.

There are a couple of organizational steps the Copyright Office could take. One example would be to better categorize the types of works. Broad categories such as sound recordings, performing arts, text and visual arts are somewhat helpful but today we have more definite descriptions that would make it more helpful in searching the copyright office records. Computer software programs, lyrics, musical compositions, websites, sculpture, paintings, architectural designs, etc. are better descriptions for others to search copyright records. (Titles themselves are not an accurate harbinger of what is contained in a deposit for a copyrighted work.)

While the CPP points out that it would also be advisable to have a sort of “small claims” procedure, it would be more than inappropriate to have separate registrars determine such claims. Copyright is a Constitutional principle:

"The Congress shall have power ... To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." U.S. Constitution Article I Section 8.

Turning over decisions to determine rights to private registrars may not only result in conflicting results (such as in the instance of domain name registrations) but confusion. Besides the federal court system, a governmental agency such as the Copyright Office would be the only other appropriate way to decide such cases.


  1. Thomas, new image recognition technology available through companies like Picscout and Idée now make it possible to search a registry or database by submitting an image. Picscout already has implemented Image Exchange to identify the licensing agent for an image found online (without any identifying text).

    These technologies make possible the kind of registry the report suggests while at the same time not displaying the registration deposits for browsing.

    The same "fingerprinting" technology is available for audio works, for example in the iPhone app Shazam.

    Lastly the report did not suggest that the "small claims" be handled by private registrars, but rather by the Copyright Office or possibly by Federal District Courts (pp 32-33)

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