Q & A with Professor Robert Brauneis

For the 2013–14 academic YEAR, Professor Robert Brauneis served as the inaugural Abraham L. Kaminstein Scholar in Residence at the U.S. Copyright Office, a position that allows leading copyright academics to spend time conducting research and working on mutually beneficial projects. Professor Brauneis sat down to answer a few questions about his work.

Q: For those who don’t know, can you explain the functions of the Copyright Office?

A: Many people may not know that the Copyright Office is located within the Library of Congress and that it has historically been connected with the development of the Library’s collection. One of the main things the office does is register claims of copyright in all types of works of authorship, from books to movies, songs, and photographs. In order to register a claim of copyright, you usually have to submit copies of the work that you want to register, and the Library of Congress chooses to keep many of those copies to form its collection. 

The office examines applications for registration to make sure that the works contain copyrightable content, and it maintains a catalog of registered works so that interested parties can learn who created and who owns the works. It does a lot of other things as well: It accepts documents related to copyright and places them on public record, advises Congress about copyright matters, is involved with drafting legislation and regulations related to copyright, monitors important copyright litigation, and is involved with international negotiations relating to copyright.

Q: What projects did you focus on during your time as scholar in residence?

A: I focused on two main projects. The first of them is related to something that the Copyright Office wants to do—namely to move from a paper-based system of recording documents to an electronic system. 

When the Copyright Office first started recording in 1870, people sent in paper documents and the specialists at the office copied some of the information to form an index. With a few changes, it’s basically doing the same thing today, more than 140 years later, and it’s very expensive to maintain. Maria Pallante, JD ’90, the register of copyrights (the official title of the head of the Copyright Office), wants to move to an electronic system, but there are lots of issues involved. Rather than just trying to duplicate what you do on paper and move it online... [we must] adjust the whole system in order to make it more efficient.

Q: What are the main challenges in moving to an electronic system?

A: Traditionally, each document has been examined as it comes in by a human to make sure that it’s more or less in order before it’s placed on the public record. It doesn’t mean that anybody has ever read the legal language and made sure that it was expressing the intent of the parties exactly right—that’s way too in-depth—but to make sure that it’s legible, complete, and not missing pages. Humans would also transcribe the names of the parties to the document and the names of the works involved into an index so that they can be retrieved. This is incredibly labor-intensive and incredibly costly. As a result, in the past 10 to 15 years, the cost of recordation has tripled and the number of documents recorded has gone down. 

So how do you maintain the quality of the database while avoiding some of the labor-intensive work? The Internet gives us lots of opportunities that paper didn’t. Everyone is now used to filling in forms online and having entries rejected because they didn’t meet certain validation criteria. There’s a lot of opportunity in these interactive forms to have the document submitters enter the catalog information themselves through an electronically guided process, rather than having Copyright Office employees do it. Most folks these days also probably already have their information in electronic form. Giving them the ability to simply submit that information in electronic form from their own databases rather than having somebody re-key it in is an important part of the electronic system.

Q: What’s the other major project you’ve been working on?

A: My other main area of focus has been to develop a database that contains the Copyright Office’s catalog in a format that allows large-scale statistical research. The current electronic catalog runs on the same system as the Library of Congress’ book catalog, and there are some pretty severe limitations. The format in which those records are kept was developed more than 40 years ago to automate the printing of catalog cards, and it’s one of the earliest computer formats that’s still in use. There are limitations on the search interface that prevent the system from being overloaded with requests. The system only returns 10,000 records for any one search, which makes sense if you’re looking for a book, but not if you’re looking to understand how the patterns in registrations and recorded documents have changed over time. The Copyright Office catalog now contains more than 26 million electronic records, and there are many single days in which more than 10,000 new records are added, so a search return of 10,000 is not going to get you anywhere. 

Q: Will your time at the Copyright Office inform your classes or future research?

A: Having this source of information that nobody had before will undoubtedly inform my research. There’s no question that I plan to write about this database, and my articles will be informed by what I learned by having access to registration and recorded document records from the past 35-plus years. In teaching, having been inside the Copyright Office for a year has given me a lot of experience and insight into how the office works, how copyright policy is made, and what sources of information there are that can inform future policymaking. I can’t help but bring that into the classroom.