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The Copyright Office: Marking One Year of Pandemic Operations

The following is a guest blog post by Shira Perlmutter, Register of Copyrights and Director, U.S. Copyright Office.

Illustrates swearing in of new Register of Copyrights remotely

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden remotely swears in Register of Copyrights Shira Perlmutter.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, the Library of Congress closed its buildings to the public and initiated pandemic operations. At the end of October, I was sworn in virtually by the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden. Since my swearing in, I have come to learn just how adeptly the Office’s dedicated staff adapted operations in 2020 to continue to serve the public during the pandemic. This past Saturday marks the one-year anniversary since our staff left the Madison Building. I am writing to acknowledge the date and provide an update on Office operations.

Phase Two Continues

The Copyright Office remains in phase two of the Library’s plan for the restoration of operations. When the building closed last year, the Library and the Copyright Office immediately transitioned most staff to enhanced telework to limit service disruptions as much as possible. As we’ve reported before, the Office swiftly transitioned 98 percent of our staff to work remotely by the end of March 2020, limiting adverse impacts to operations. To recap the timeline:

  • Fourteen weeks passed before the Library determined it was safe to start a measured return on-site. On June 22, the Library launched its part one of phase one operations, which brought 5 percent of staff back on-site, with stringent guidelines to protect their health and safety. The Copyright Office had thirty-four staffers on-site to handle critical processing of physical materials; they were on rotating schedules that did not exceed forty hours during a two-week pay period.
  • On July 20, the Library initiated part two of phase one operations, with the goal of reinstating additional on-site operations while limiting both percentage of total staff that were physically present and the hours each worked per week. The Copyright Office added twenty more staff members (bringing the number to fifty-four, representing 12 percent of our total staff) in the Madison Building and at the Landover deposit facility (which we were in the process of vacating).
  • The Library started its phase two on August 24. The transition to phase two allowed us to double our on-site operations. Of course, requirements for physical distancing, pre-entry health checks, and safe operation of common equipment remained in force. As of March 10, we had 27 percent of our staff (122 people) on-site, some full-time and some on rotating schedules, and 73 percent teleworking full time.

Accomplishments and Challenges

Illustrates pandemic procedures implemented at Madison Building.

The Library of Congress has implemented social distancing measures, such as these markings, to protect the health of those on site.

As I noted in my March 3 budget testimony, the Office has achieved many noteworthy successes while addressing significant operational challenges over the past year. Much of our work was not affected by the move to remote telework. To give a few examples, legal and policy work, aimed at serving both Congress and the public, has continued productively and on time. Indeed, the quantity and quality of the work on rulemakings, policy studies, new laws, and continuing support to Congress and executive branch agencies, would be impressive even in nonpandemic times.

Our public education efforts also continue, ranging from a refreshed website, to public events, to outreach on music modernization and other matters. In addition, we have continued work on our IT modernization projects, working with colleagues in the Library’s Office of the Chief Information Officer and various contractors on IT workstreams involving recordation, public records, and registration modules. We moved into our new warehouse storage facility in Cabin Branch, Maryland, and are working to consolidate our deposits from other locations. Our mail processing staff is on-site and processing incoming physical materials. The Office also has extended temporary adjustments to certain timing provisions under the Copyright Act for persons affected by the COVID-19 national emergency as permitted under the CARES Act for an additional sixty days, through May 10, 2021.

We do continue to experience delays in the processing of physical materials, including mail and copyright deposits. These delays are primarily due to health and safety precautions and to mail disruptions resulting from the impact of the pandemic. The Office is continuously reviewing and adjusting its operations to limit these impacts.

Let me share more details on some of our key services. We have accomplished a lot this past year in administering the national registration and recordation systems.

Registration: Even with the pandemic, we made significant strides in improving processing times. In fiscal 2020 (October 1, 2019, to September 30, 2020), the Office registered 443,911 claims to copyright involving millions of works.

Ninety-eight percent of registration applications closed were received electronically and two percent by mail. Last November, we reported that the average overall processing times for examining all copyright claims dropped from 4.0 months in the second half of fiscal 2019 to 2.6 months in the second half of fiscal 2020, representing a 35 percent decrease, a remarkable achievement.

More specifically, the average processing times for fully electronic claims that did not require correspondence (74 percent of all electronic claims) dropped from 3.0 months to 1.6 months, and those that did require correspondence (26 percent) dropped from 6.0 months to 3.6 months. This shows the efficiencies of teleworking and our handling of electronic claims.

Despite the overall reduction in registration processing times, the pandemic did negatively impact processing times for those very few paper applications (which comprise only about 2 percent of registration claims) and electronic applications that required the submission of physical deposits. To assist claimants using paper processes, the Office implemented accommodations for applicants who were required by law to submit physical deposits of the “best edition” of certain published works. It is important to recognize that the overall percentage of these kinds of claims appears to have declined in recent months, as more applicants are taking advantage of the electronic processes and pandemic accommodations available from the Office.

Illustrates staff member working on site while wearing a mask

A Copyright Office staff member works on site while implementing pandemic procedures.

Recordation: The big news over the past year has been work on launching our new electronic recordation module in April 2020 and continuing to build out features with our pilot users. This project is our first major step in bringing our paper-based recordation system into the digital age. The exciting news is that the average time from electronic submission of a basic recordation by a pilot user to generation of the public record was only eight days.

Given the paper-based nature of recordation, the pandemic did bring some adverse impacts, as we reported last year. In fiscal 2020, the Office recorded 7,098 documents, on paper and through the new electronic recordation pilot, containing titles of 233,694 works. This is a decrease from the number of documents recorded in the prior year, due in large part to the fact that full recordation staff was off-site for much of the second half of fiscal 2020.

For fiscal 2020, the average processing time for paper submissions was approximately 11.5 months; this was an increase of 3.5 months from fiscal 2019. Our current processing time is twelve months for basic recordation filings and six months for notices of terminations. The team is now processing August 2019 basic filings and March 2020 notices of terminations. Recordation staff have been working overtime to address this backlog. Keep in mind, regardless of the processing time, the effective date of recordation is the date the Copyright Office receives a complete submission in acceptable form.

Illustrates staff member working on site while wearing a mask

A Copyright Office staff member works on site while implementing pandemic procedures.

Acquisitions: Limited on-site operations also impacted the Office’s acquisition of physical materials for Library collections in the third and fourth quarters of fiscal 2020. The Office was able, however, to maintain an effective e-deposit program throughout the fiscal year. E-serial and, in particular, e-book acquisitions made up a significant portion of the Office’s contributions to the Library’s collections. For fiscal 2020, the value of deposits, $40.03 million, was just shy of the previous year’s total. The value of the access that special relief relationships with major e-serial and e-book publishers provided for Library staff and patrons increased from $69.87 million in fiscal 2019 to $75.26 million in fiscal 2020.

Looking Ahead

We do not yet know when the Library will be able move to phase three operations, including the phased reopening of various public services and access to Library premises. The Copyright Office is planning for a measured reopening of our Public Information Office and Copyright Records Reading Room during phase three. While it continues to be an imperative to take all possible measures to ensure the health and safety of our staff, they have already demonstrated tremendous dedication and capabilities in the face of this year’s extraordinary challenges. I look forward to everything we will be able to accomplish together in the coming months as we return to more normal operations.

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