05/07/2012 09:19 am ET | Updated Jul 07, 2012

Copyright and the Creator

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that allows for the protection of "original works of authorship," including works of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic nature. Though the term "copyright" literally means "the right to copy," copyright has come to describe a general body of exclusive rights given to authors, including the right to reproduce the work, create "derivative works" (works inspired or based upon a previous work), distribute the work, and display/perform the work. One of the least understood principles of copyright is the method by which it is acquired. Copyright exists automatically, as soon as an original work is created in fixed (tangible) form. There is no formal process required in order to ensure copyright protection.

Despite the fact that registration is not mandatory, copyright law offers numerous incentives to creators to register their work with the United States Copyright Office (USCO). The mission of the USCO is "to promote creativity by administering and sustaining an effective national copyright system," and the primary method by which it achieves this mission is through serving as the only agency in the United States that is legally permitted to register copyrights of creative works. Copyright registration is one of the most important purposes the USCO serves, not only because the registration of copyrights is the principal source of fee receipts for the Office, but also because the majority of the Office's interaction with the public is directly related to inquiries about copyright registration. Because of this, the USCO's copyright registration service has the widest impact on the way the public perceives the Office.

In 2007, the USCO underwent an internal re-engineering process that shifted the copyright registration system from paper-based to online. The purpose of this change was to help expedite the copyright registration process for both applicants and the USCO by optimizing speed, cost and convenience. Despite this extensive modification, however, the number of applications for copyright registration that the Office receives has declined over the past two decades, remaining roughly the same as before the transformation.

This decline has occurred despite a shift in the creative market that has increased the value of creativity and number of creators in the United States. Richard Florida identifies the Creative Class, which consists of 38 million Americans (1/3 of the American workforce) and is made up of "those who engage in work whose functions is to create meaningful new forms" (Cities 34). According to Florida's calculations measuring the Creative Class over time, it has grown more than tenfold in the last century, increasing from approximately three million workers in 1900 to 38 million Americans today, and will continue its rapid growth into the future. Additionally, technological advances have contributed to the increase in creativity. Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig has identified the formation of the Remix Culture, or a culture which encourages the creation of derivative works. The premise of the Remix Culture is that through basic technology such as Microsoft Word, Wikipedia, YouTube and Garage Band, amateur creators have the ability to "create and distribute creative content" based on works they encounter online or in their daily lives. These two conflicting pieces of evidence -- the declining number of copyright registrations received by the USCO and increase in creative activities in the United States -- indicate a disconnect between the USCO and the creative market, demonstrating that new creators are not registering their works for copyright.

Given the evidence that creativity in America is rapidly increasing, the question arises why the number of copyright registrations has not simultaneously seen a parallel increase. Works that are registered for copyright are (by definition) of a creative nature, and the fact that creators are not registering their works for copyright is indicative of a disconnect between the USCO and creators. Using a survey and interviews conducted for this thesis, I have identified six possible explanations for this phenomenon: the recent economic recession, a lack of understanding and awareness about copyright, the fact that copyright registration is optional, the difficulties in the current copyright registration process, the shift to a "free culture" mentality, and the idea that many creators are driven by intrinsic rewards. Each of these reasons is thoroughly explored in my thesis.

Copyright is extremely valuable to the preservation of American culture. It ensures that people can profit from their creativity, and as research has shown, creativity is becoming increasingly valued in American society. As the federal agency tasked with carrying out the provisions of the Constitutional copyright clause, the USCO is the authority on the scope of copyright issues. Although the USCO has experienced a decline in copyright registrations over the past decade, the reasons for these are diagnosable and can be fixed. It is the role of the Office to remain relevant with creators, and through doing so, to fulfill their Constitutional duties.