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Copyright Office Ramps up Workload

Officials at the Copyright Office hope to get rid of a growing backlog of claims, partly by requiring employees to work more quickly.

But one union is claiming that the new requirements will in fact set employees up for failure and mask a system that is broken.

The proposal comes about one year after the office switched from a paper-based system to an electronic one at a cost of $50 million. It was one of the biggest changes in the office’s history, and it meant that employees had to fit into new roles and learn new skills.

The new requirements would affect about 100 registration specialists who decide whether a work meets the requirements to be copyrighted, and, if it does, enter the work’s particulars into the public record. They handle the registration for every literary, musical and visual work in the country.

Most specialists now finish the registration of one of those works every hour. Copyright officials want them to complete an average of 2.5 per hour — an amount only about 10 percent have reached since the new system was implemented almost a year ago.

Union officials say kinks in the electronic system are to blame for the slow pace, and the Copyright Office should fix the problems before imposing “unrealistic standards” on employees.

“It looks to us like they’re blaming the staff,” said Saul Schniderman, president of the Library of Congress Professional Guild.

But copyright officials say they expect employees to be able to work faster as more electronic applications come in — a number they hope increases with last week’s launch of their online application service. Right now, most claims still come through the mail, and entering them into the new system is a laborious process.

Still, the office must bargain with the guild before implementing any new standards. Meetings will begin is the next few weeks.

“We want people to succeed. We need people to succeed,” said David Christopher, the associate chief operating officer for the Copyright Office. “And we’ll bargain in good faith.”

Right now, the office has a backlog of about 340,000 claims. And that grows by about 6,000 claims a week.

Employees can’t process the claims fast enough, partly because they are processing paper claims with a system made for electronic documents and partly because of a steep learning curve for the new system.

Documents and charts outlining the productivity of the specialists show that their average is about one claim per hour.

To get to the 2.5 per hour mark, officials estimated how much more productive employees would be if certain tweaks were made. That includes last week’s launch of the Web-based submission system and removing “fee problems” from the specialists’ responsibilities.

But even the method of that study has some specialists upset, according to the union.

The office monitored the productivity rate of every registration specialist — and then separated it by race, age and gender. When employees saw it — courtesy of the union — they questioned why officials were keeping tabs on different demographic groups.

Christopher said the charts were made to ensure that the new standards wouldn’t adversely affect any one group. The office gave the union the charts to be “transparent,” he said.

“We didn’t necessarily distribute that far and wide,” he said. “Clearly it’s sensitive information.”

The study showed that the new standards don’t affect any one group more than others, Christopher said. But the union argues that the study instead shows that no one can meet the higher expectations and proves that the office has to go back to the paper system, at least temporarily.

They point to employees’ productivity in the paper system as proof. Registration specialists used to be examiners or cataloguers; examiners decided if something could be copyrighted, while cataloguers created the public record.

Examiners had to process a minimum of five claims an hour — now most registration specialists, whose new jobs encompass parts of both of the old positions, have trouble completing two.

“Obviously, you do get somewhat better. The first day I’m sure you’re much worse than the next day,” said Kent Dunlap, chief negotiator of the union, which is part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “What we’re saying is there are more technical problems than were anticipated.”

Christopher emphasized that the jobs are “very different.” The reorganization of the office, he said, meant each job lost some responsibilities and gained others.

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