A good article on the state of play of copyrights by Hal Varian this morning — Copyrights That No One Knows About Don’t Help Anyone – New York Times. As Varian points out, there is no longer a need to register your copyright with the Copyright Office. Copyright is automatically given when the work (such as this blog posting) is created. Some of us voluntarily have adopted the Creative Commons copyright — but we don’t register our works with Creative Commons, just our general conditions for reuse.
The article discusses both the Copyright Office’s orphan copyright project (to track down owners) and Larry Lessig’s idea of requiring a positive act of registration after 14 years to continue a copyright. I support both of these ideas.
Varian also highlights the notion of creating a copyright registry:
Creating a registry is not that difficult from either a technological or a business perspective. The Copyright Clearance Center (www.copyright.com) was established by a group of publishers in 1978 to provide rights clearance for printed works. The Harry Fox Agency (www.harryfox.com) serves as a clearinghouse for those who want to make recordings of songs, and there are plenty of Web sites devoted to image search to ease the sharing of photographs.
But would the creators charge excessive fees if rights clearinghouses became widespread? I would argue that just the opposite would occur. An easy-to-use, efficient and competitive marketplace tends to push prices down. Reducing the transactions costs of acquiring reproduction rights potentially makes both creators and users of information better off.
Here I have to begin to disagree. I think there is a case for a public/private partnership in creating such a registry, not simply a competitive market. Basic access to information on who owns a copyright should be a governmental function — just like basic information on who owns a piece of property. But the bells and whistles of a search and data analysis process should be a private undertaking (“value added” is the phrase). The model is the EDGAR system of SEC filings. Anyone can get access to the basic EDGAR — it is public information. But a host of private value-added services have sprung up, such as EDGAR Online, to provide the additional analytical capability. The partnership works well: the government collects the basic information and the private sector competes to provide the best analytical tools.
(For more lessons learned from the EDGAR system, see our paper Creating A System For Reporting Intangibles — available as part of Appendix 9 in the EU study on an intangibles reporting registry.)
Having the basic data available to any vendor is the key to fostering the competition Varian talks about. But to do so means the registry system itself need to be an open public system. That sound like a job for the Copyright Office to me.