IG Sounds Alarm on Copyright Office

Backlog of 400,000 Claims Could Have ‘Serious Impact’ on System

Posted September 15, 2008 at 6:30pm

The Copyright Office’s growing backlog of claims could have a “serious impact” on the U.S. copyright system, according to a recent report from the Library of Congress’ inspector general.

Citing a “flawed premise” and “overly optimistic assumptions,” Inspector General Karl Schornagel warned that the Copyright Office needs to decrease its backlog of about 400,000 claims — or risk serious consequences.

An increasing backlog could not only delay registration and thus hurt the copyright system, but it could also “negatively impact the Library’s ability to provide researchers with current materials in a timely manner, and present the Library with a growing space and security of collections issue,” Schornagel wrote in a Sept. 3 memo.

The backlog has steadily increased for months, ever since Copyright officials switched from a paper-based system to an electronic one. It was one of the biggest changes in the office’s history, costing at least $50 million and taking almost eight years to complete.

The office — which operates under the Library of Congress — handles the registration for every literary, musical and visual work in the country. Before the new system, paper claims took about six months to go through the entire process. That now stands at more than nine months.

But claims made electronically — now about 45 percent of all claims — take one to four months. And Copyright officials say that as more people file their claims electronically, the backlog will stabilize and eventually decrease.

In a memo responding to the IG report, Copyright officials laid out their plans, which include hiring more people and offering more incentives to convince users to file electronically. The office has already set up a help desk for electronic filing and hired “problem resolution specialists” to help with input issues.

As for the effect of the growing backlog, the memo called the office just “one piece” of a copyright system that also includes the law and the courts.

Any implication that the backlog could damage the system is “overblowing” it, said David Christopher, associate chief operating officer for the Copyright Office.

“We’re not going to crash the entire copyright system,” he said. “In fact, what we’ve done will improve the copyright system.”

Copyright officials decided in 2000 that the office needed to move from its paper system to one that is computer-based. And they believe the office will adjust to the change in the coming months.

But the move has caused internal controversy. The Library of Congress Professional Guild has warned Congress for months of the backlog and its effect on employees. The IG report, union officials said, doesn’t cover all the problems.

“We support these recommendations, but they skirt the most critical issue and that is this: For both the staff and the public, the new system is clunky and confusing,” Guild President Saul Schniderman said.

Employees are now processing claims much slower than before the switch — a result of new responsibilities, software glitches and a system not set up for the paper claims that make up half of all claims received.

One registration specialist said the electronic system is slow and cumbersome, needing constant updates. For example, correcting a mistake in a record can mean clicking on “multiple tabs and multiple screens.”

“Basically the big challenge is working with a tool that does not allow us to do the work,” said the specialist, who does not have permission to speak to the media and asked not to be named. “Even our most experienced people are struggling to use the system.”

In his report, Schornagel recommends that the office “must act quickly in order to preserve the integrity of the U.S. Copyright system.”

But in an interview, he said that the problem may become less acute as the office receives more electronic claims. The Sept. 3 report, he said, is a “baseline” for the IG office.

“We’re going to wait and see how the Copyright Office resolves these issues and hopefully follow up properly within the next few months and see what the backlog looks like,” he said.

Each week, about 3,800 claims are added to the pile, though that number appears to be decreasing, Program Planning Officer William Collins said. The first goal is to make that number zero, he said, and then to work through the backlog — a process that could take months or years.

“It’s going to take a long time just getting up to the point that we’re no longer adding to [the backlog],” Christopher said.