How about making copyright registration private?

In 2007, Dan Heller, a freelance photographer, filed a proposal with the US Copyright Office. The proposal urged for the creation of a system of privately-run ‘Copyright Registrars’.

The proposal describes a universal online system where a large number of private companies would be involved in the processing of copyright registration of original works. The system would include a giant database of all the registered works. Futhermore, the private registrars would serve as authorized representatives of the works. They would be allowed to sell or license a work. They could even negotiate the price of a work with a potential user. As a result, Mr. Heller argues that ‘because there would be many such companies, the higher volume of servicing agents would not only lower the cost of processing applications (thus, lowering fees), but also increase the capacity of applications that can be processed.’ This would encourage creators to register their works online and allow the little guys, not only those with deep pockets, to be protected. 

Under Canadian law, to register a work costs $50. In the U.S., the determination of a fee is more complex with the cheapest registration at about $35. Compared to the registration of other intellectual property (for example patents or trademarks) copyright registration fees are low. However, it should be acknowledged that copyright protection could become quite expensive for a professional photographer such as Mr. Heller, who might want to protect the thousands of photographs he takes each year. It could also be time-consuming to file individual registration applications, even if some bundling of multiple photos is allowed under the same application. So how would Mr. Heller’s private system be better than the existing government-run registration?

The proposed system promises lower fees and higher processing efficiency. However, it seems to me that creating the proposed system requires a huge capital investment. It would be quite expensive to set up and develop a new universal system accessible to everyone, to find companies that are able to operate the system, and to turn the existing Copyright Office into a government body that exercises sufficient supervision so that all of the ‘private registrars’ apply the law consistently when granting registration. Thus it is unclear how investing in such a system would potentially reduce registration fees below those currently administered.

I agree with Mr. Heller that with the tremendous increase in internet-generated content, the current system is not fit to provide copyright protection for all creators. Yet, I am not convinced that the proper approach is to completely abandon the current system and put it in the hands of private entities. Rather we should first look at reforming the current system and only if such reforms prove costly and unattainable should we look at the alternative of privatizing copyright registration. 

  1. In Mr. Heller’s article he describes some important aspects/requirements of a copyright system that will endure in the future. The process of clearing copyright – if one actually takes the time to do so – is fraught with error, expense and is extremely time consuming. Army’s of lawyers are employed by, for example, Hollywood to do just this sort of redundant work. Mr. Heller’s conception of an open API and database of registered works is, in my mind, an absolute necessity if copyright is to remain viable in this modern world. Without such a system copyright searching and clearing will only become more ineffectual. Up to date information related to registered works and the licenses attached to them is vital to the culture Lessig aptly describes as one of remix. Like generations and societies before us we build upon what came before – only now we’ve monetized so much IP that we must more accurately track its owners, the rights attached thereto, and perhaps more importantly those that relinquish such rights willingly.
    Ms. Shahid argues in favor of a cautious trial and error approach principally based on the cost of implementing such a system and the unclear return to end consumers in terms of individual registration costs. With respect to implementation costs I believe that industry itself should be highly interested in supporting the development of such a system. If Hollywood redirected just a portion of the millions of dollars it pays every year to lawyers to clear copyright the development and hosting costs of such a system would easily be covered. In the future copyright clearing could be a simple, cheap task performed by a summer student with internet access rather than expensive lawyers. With respect to whether privatization would decrease the price for consumers we need look no further than website domain registration costs and the ICANN model as suggested by Heller. Initially domain registrations were free, but pressure on the National Science Foundation forced them to charge $100 per registration to cover the operational costs of the government. This should sound familiar. Years later, after the privatization of registration, companies like GoDaddy offer domain registrations for 6.95 or less during a sales event. That’s right, you could have a sales event on copyright registration. Everyone loves a sale – even copyright holders.

  2. The Writers Guilds in Canada and the US both offer non-government registration services for screenplays. See WGA and WGC. This is an important alternative especially for Canadians.

Comments are closed.