Unexpected Consequences: The Copyright Office (Finally) Goes Digital

When one thinks about the attacks of 9/11, and the ensuing national security hysteria, anthrax scares, and the impact it all has had on daily life and our government, the first thing that comes to mind probably is not the workings of the United States Copyright Office. Yet the effects of this tragedy resonate throughout the nation and into every aspect of our government activities.

A lot of attention has been paid to the restructuring of the FBI and CIA, but the Copyright Office has also undergone a major overhaul as a result of that infamous day. On July 1, 2008, the Copyright Office (USCO) went public with the eCO (Electronic Copyright Office) after beta testing the system for about a year, and the all new FormCO, as part of a major overhaul of its system. These developments are, in many respects, a result of changes in Washington, D.C., following the anthrax scares of 2001, says David J. Christopher, associate COO at the USCO. Mail delivery shut down in D.C. for weeks, creating a massive backlog for the folks in the copyright office. Even now, every piece of mail sent to Capitol Hill, where the USCO offices are located, goes through an irradiation process, slowing down the delivery of mail by days or even weeks. The irradiation process also has the nasty habit of damaging files submitted on CDs, DVDs, or other media. So the ability to accept and process claims online became imperative back in 2001, if not already overdue.

While it may seem obvious that this process should be a digital one, getting to this stage has been no small task. The USCO underwent an entire re-engineering of its system, says Christopher. "It was a lot more than purchasing an IT system and upgrading everybody’s PC. … It’s a big integrated system. We have converted ourselves from a paper-based system to an electronic one," says Christopher. As part of the long-term restructuring—which even included a renovation of the office space—the department has also made the switch to digital processing internally, which has the unfortunate side effect of adding to the lag time in processing a paper claim. 

Essentially, the eCO is just a part of the copyright office’s broader IT system that manages all claims electronically, even those submitted the old-fashioned way. So every time a budding young writer prints out his epic novel, packages it up, and sends it off to obtain a copyright, it must then be turned back into an electronic file using OCR technology. When you consider that the USCO processes about 550,000 claims a year, 80% of which are filed through the mail, it is no wonder there is a wait of up to 8 months for a traditional paper claim to be completed.

In comparison, a claim filed through eCO generally takes about a month to process, though sometimes it is just a matter of days. Before eCO, about a dozen or so "frequent filers"—including publishers and movie studios—were able to file through a relatively unsophisticated, email-based system, says Christopher. Now, anyone can go online and file an application, pay, and, in some cases, upload their work. Users save $10 by filing an eCO claim, as opposed to filing through the mail. 

For people who are still afraid to enter credit card or bank information on the internet, the USCO has also released the FormCO. The form is filled out online and then printed, along with a 2D bar code. It is then submitted with payment, and the hard copy of the work to be copyrighted, through the mail. The bar code can then be scanned and moved through the process much more quickly than a traditional paper claim—somewhere along the lines of 3 or 4 months. It is a compromise for those who do not want to file online, though Christopher stresses that eCO is the USCO’s preferred method of submission. "We’ve proven to ourselves that e-service is better," he says, and he hopes that it will someday account for 80% or more of its business.

Christopher acknowledges some issues with the system—a default 30-minute limit on uploads, and file size issues among them—but also says he has gotten mostly positive feedback. 

In just the first week of July, eCO claims jumped from about 2,000 a week up to 3,000. Christopher says he is not sure
why it took so long for the USCO to jump on the internet bandwagon, but "the launch seems successful from our point of view."