By Lawrence Lessig
Public Domain Books
Registration and Renewal
Under the old system, a copyright owner had to file a registration with the Copyright Office to register or renew a copyright. When filing that registration, the copyright owner paid a fee. As with most government agencies, the Copyright Office had little incentive to minimize the burden of registration; it also had little incentive to minimize the fee. And as the Copyright Office is not a main target of government policy- making, the office has historically been terribly underfunded. Thus, when people who know something about the process hear this idea about formalities, their first reaction is panic—nothing could be worse than forcing people to deal with the mess that is the Copyright Office.
Yet it is always astonishing to me that we, who come from a tradition of extraordinary innovation in governmental design, can no longer think innovatively about how governmental functions can be designed. Just because there is a public purpose to a government role, it doesn’t follow that the government must actually administer the role. Instead, we should be creating incentives for private parties to serve the public, subject to standards that the government sets.
In the context of registration, one obvious model is the Internet. There are at least 32 million Web sites registered around the world. Domain name owners for these Web sites have to pay a fee to keep their registration alive. In the main top-level domains (.com, .org, .net), there is a central registry. The actual registrations are, however, performed by many competing registrars. That competition drives the cost of registering down, and more importantly, it drives the ease with which registration occurs up.
We should adopt a similar model for the registration and renewal of copyrights. The Copyright Office may well serve as the central registry, but it should not be in the registrar business. Instead, it should establish a database, and a set of standards for registrars. It should approve registrars that meet its standards. Those registrars would then compete with one another to deliver the cheapest and simplest systems for registering and renewing copyrights. That competition would substantially lower the burden of this formality—while producing a database of registrations that would facilitate the licensing of content.