Earlier this year, the United States Copyright Office (USCO) announced that they were going to begin beta testing their new electronic copyright office (eCO) system to accept registrations over the Web.
The system, in theory, is supposed to make registering your work with the USCO easier, faster and cheaper than the traditional “file by mail” system that the USCO has used for decades.
But how does the system compare with existing services, such as Godaddy’s c-Site and is it enough to save the USCO from becoming a complete dinosaur in the digital age?
Well, last week I received an invite to beta test the system and sought to answer those questions for myself. What I found was an inadequate system that never failed to disappoint.
Obtaining the Invite
Getting the invite to test the system was a relatively painless process. I was on the USCO site for unrelated business and filled out the brief form to request becoming a beta tester. Within 24 hours, I had an email inviting me to join the test and instructions for signing on.
The email gave me instructions to register for an account at a hidden page on the USCO site. The registration was spread across four screens. The first asked me for my name, time zone, username and password. The second asked me to fill in my personal contact information, address, phone, etc. The third had me agree to a terms of service and the fourth was a confirmation of the first three screens.
With the account registered, I could easily log in and see the interface, but I had to confirm the registration before I could actually do anything. Confirming the registration required me to reply to my acceptance email with my username and other information so they could activate the account.
After waiting another day, the account was activated. I was able to log back in and start the registration process. However, it was then that the chinks in the armor began to become very clear.
Going Through the Motions
Once your access to the system is confirmed, you can then begin to go through the motions of registering your work.
When you first log in to your account, you are greeted with the screen below (click for larger screen).
Once you click the “Start a New Registration” screen, you are taken to a page that provides you an overview of the three steps that will follow, filling out the application, making payment and submitting your deposits. You then click the “Start Registration” button and begin the application process.
The application process takes place over a series of eleven steps, starting with the type of work and ending with a review of the submission. The entire time you’re moving through the application process, a box, such as the one to the left, is displayed on the screen showing you where you are in the process.
Each step is relatively short and closely mirrors the information that is entered on the paper forms. Navigation between the steps is handled through a navigation bar displayed above each page’s form.
In addition to allowing you to move back and forward through the steps, the navigation bar allows you to save the registration at any time, letting you to access it through their account management tools. Also, in some sections, it has the ability to “Add Me”, which will fill in your provided information instead of having you retype it.
All totaled, the application process takes about thirty minutes the first time you go through it. Subsequent times, when you’re more comfortable with the format and the steps, can take as little as ten.
Once you have completed your application, you are then taken to a page on Pay.gov, which is a site operated by the United States Treasury. There you are given the opportunity to pay the $35 fee either via checking account or credit card.
Unfortunately, that is where I had to stop. Though my original intention was to register this site using the service, problems and concerns with the registration prevented me from spending the money on the registration.
Issues with the Service
Many of the problems with the eCO service are apparent just by looking at the few screenshots I provided. The submission process is clumsy, the layout is ugly and the language is, in places, very confusing.
It was clearly a system designed for people already very familiar with the copyright registration process and, even though I have successfully registered many things with the USCO, this system left me scratching my head at least a few times.
But worse still is the extreme slowness of the service and regular error messages. Several times when I tried to sign on I was told that I was already logged into the system and couldn’t enter it again. Other times, I experienced random, and rather cryptic, server error messages.
Most frustrating of all was that clicking the “Add Me” button, as described above, took the system upwards of a minute to add my data in. Once, it took so long my session timed out before the data was put in.
However, the deal breaker, for me, was the complete and total lack of effective documentation for the service. When I reached the point where they were asking for my credit card number, I realized that I had no idea how to prepare my site for upload.
I knew from reading other reviews that the site would have to be uploaded in a zip file and that there had been hiccups with the upload process, but I had no clue what kind of files it would require me to reformat the site as an RTF, TXT or PDF file. In the past, I’ve submitted HTML documents burned to a disk with no problems, but this system seems to have changed many of the rules.
So, I left the eCO system at the altar, my registration complete save the payment and the upload.
However, I held out a glimmer of hope that the eCO system might modernize the USCO enough to be practical in the Internet age. Unfortunately, those hopes have been dashed pretty thoroughly.
This is not an update to the USCO, it is just a means for them to accept and process copyright applications more quickly. It only brings the USCO up to date if you assume that the date is 1995.
The eCO system does not take advantage of new technologies such as RSS or AJAX. It is not user-friendly or significantly more cost-effecient. It is not approachable to anyone who has never filed a registration before and, worst of all, it does nothing to make the process of registering a Web site more clear.
In short, it is nothing but fast lane for traditional copyright holders. The RIAA types will enjoy this system greatly and will forgive its flaws because it speeds up the process and saves them money. But bloggers, Webmasters and smaller rightsholders will miss out on the revolution.
This system held so much promise when it was announced. However, it is now just another government failure when trying to adapt copyright law to the Web.
To be fair, we must remember that this system is just a beta. However, as my own experiences in government work tells me, the powers that be don’t beta test until they feel they are very close to a final product. If that is the case, then this is nothing but a colossal failure.
What makes it so embarrassing is that online copyright registration services have existed for years. These services, which have charged a premium to process postal copyright registrations, are, by in large, fast, user-friendly and easy.
However, it is that legal authority that causes most of the major problems with the eCO. By having to comply with a set of laws that don’t fit neatly with the Internet, the eCO system goes from a painless registration to a cumbersome application of antiquated laws.
The eCO system is an attempt to shoehorn 1978 copyright law into a 2008 copyright reality. It just doesn’t work.
Out of a ten I have to give the system a three. It is better than no electronic copyright registration system at all, but that is not saying much.