New tools for recording copyrights

Several new tools have recently become available to make copyright record keeping and searching somewhat easier, although it still is not what could be called simple. Perhaps more importantly, another set of “best practices” in fair use has been issued by The Center for Social Media at American University, which offers the opportunity to comment on what these statements of best practices are and what they hope to accomplish.

The first new tool worth noting is from the Copyright Office itself — a new ingestion system that permits, for the first time, online registration of copyrights. It is hard to believe that this is the first time the Copyright Office has stepped away from paper forms, but that is the case. Starting July 1 it is possible to submit an online registration form and pay a fee that is $10 lower than the standard $45 cost of registration. The deposit requirement, which mandates that copies of a registered work be sent to the Library of Congress, will still have to be fulfilled by U.S. mail. It is also possible to track the status of a registration process that is done online. In addition to the online system, there is also a new paper form which uses barcodes to speed processing; the applicant fills out the form online, prints it off and mails it with the regular fee, but it does not take as long, in theory, for the Copyright Office to process. Since registration is still necessary before a copyright holder can file suit for infringement, a quicker registration system should help speed the judicial process a little. It will also make it easier to find copyright owners for works that are relatively new or newly registered.

Searching for copyright owners will become much more urgent if any version of the Orphan Works legislation pending before Congress actually is enacted, so copyright renewal records are as important, if not more important, than initial registrations. For new works, there is no doubt that copyright protection is in force unless there is some form of waiver like the Creative Commons license. But for those works most likely to be orphaned — works published between 1923 and 1963 — it will be vital to know if a copyright was renewed and, if so, by whom. Stanford University has offered a database of copyright renewal records for some time, and now there is a single XML file of both renewal records and original registration records from 1978 onwards available from Google. The digitization of these records required the efforts of several dedicated organizations, including Carnegie Mellon’s Universal Library Project and the Project Gutenberg.

Once this XML file became available, it did not take long for some copyright geeks (no offense intended; I am one myself) to design a simple interface to search these records. This site designed by a law student at Tulane University, under the direction of Professor Elizabeth Townsend Gard, should make it much easier to examine the Copyright Office records, and they are promising a more sophisticated tool by Fall. Whether or not we actually get orphan works legislation, it remains very difficult to find rights holders for lots of different kinds of works, and we must be grateful to all of the folks who have created these tools to make that important task a little bit easier. All of the sites, however, come with the warning that it is never certain, based on a search of these records, that a copyright was NOT registered or renewed; while they will tell us who did file for registration or renewal, it will remain something of a risk to use a work for which one does not find a record in these databases. That is why orphan works legislation is needed, so that a user who makes the effort to search these records and cannot, in good faith, find a rights holder is subjected to a much lesser risk than one who uses a work without any attempt to find out if copyright persists and by whom it is held.

See tomorrow’s post for discussion of a different kind of new tool — a statement of best practices for fair use in online video.