Revamping Tech Infrastructure: The U.S. Copyright Office

Letter from the Executive Editor, August 2021

Earlier this summer, I was honored to be selected to serve on a new group organized by the US Copyright Office. The Copyright Public Modernization Committee was announced in late June and will support the Copyright Office’s efforts to modernize its infrastructure. Like many institutions, the Copyright Office is challenged to support a variety of interests and demands from copyright registrants and users of copyrighted works seeking information, as well as from businesses and cultural institutions. Each group has its own expectations and needs—as a federal institution, the Copyright Office is obligated to meet these needs, and as a cultural institution, it has an obligation to serve the broader community, as well. Managing these expectations while deploying new infrastructure systems in a large institution is no small task. Underlying all of this, too, is the fact that the Library of Congress has long suffered from an underinvestment in technological infrastructure (to be fair, as have many other federal and local government institutions), but the Library has been making significant progress addressing these issues in recent years.

The Copyright Office’s Modernization Effort has been underway since 2019, though its planning goes back to the 2015 GAO report that highlighted the IT systems at LC. The project seeks to achieve three goals: that the Copyright Office’s IT systems be more flexible and easy for users to use; that these supporting IT systems be modernized; and that, combined, these further ensure that Copyright Office practices and processes are efficient and productive. This effort encompasses the public registration and recordation systems, the asset and tracking systems, as well as the public records and back-end management systems. Collectively, this Enterprise Copyright System will integrate, innovate, and improve all of the Copyright Office’s technology systems.

The Committee hosted its first open meeting in late July, and a recording will be available soon.  This public meeting is part of an ongoing series of webinars that the Copyright Office has made available to update the community about the project. The discussion spanned a wide variety of topics, from IT security and data privacy to agile development and public access to information. With a project as comprehensive as this, that impacts so much of what the Copyright Office does, it was hardly surprising the first meeting would be so wide-ranging. Each participant came to the meeting with their own area of focus. 

My particular concerns are focused on the system’s interoperability at scale with other systems and the standards that underlie them (of course), but also my personal interests about recordation and the simplicity of the systems that should (one hopes) reduce costs for individuals to record their copyright in works they’ve created, should they wish to. As more and more people become content creators, the general public must better understand intellectual property rights as well as how to share their rights, such as through Creative Commons licenses. Providing individuals with the same rights and affordances that every large corporate copyright holder has should be a core feature of any new IT system that the Copyright Office develops.

The Committee’s work also appeals to me from the perspective of the IT infrastructure improvements that every institution will need to make from time to time. For example, earlier this year, NISO arranged a thought leadership program focused on technological debt, or the costs associated with managing aging IT systems. This is core to the problem that LC and many other organizations are facing.  Investments made long ago or decisions made about implementations of technology have ramifications that reverberate years later. Importantly, organizations should be careful to not let these decisions hamper future development if they are no longer fit for purpose. This is true of technology systems, regardless of organizational size or technological complexity. Oddly enough, at both extremes of the size spectrum, we are hamstrung in advancing from aging systems, because the size and complexity of these changes scale as the organization does. Smaller organizations with fewer resources are bound by the fear of making the wrong decision or by the lack of resources to move away from an older system. Larger organizations are bound by the significant costs of these systems and the complexity of moving from one large system to another, in an environment where interoperability with other systems managing other organizational functions is a concern.  

My hope is that over the next several years of involvement with the Copyright Office CPMC, I will be able to support LC in its modernization efforts, and help highlight the need for systems interoperability both for organizations that rely on the Copyright Office’s systems and for those individuals who seek to use those systems. Fundamentally, we all need these government systems to function effectively. Like the roads and bridges that the government maintains, these IT systems are the highways of the future, and they need constant maintenance and upkeep.


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO