Pandemic doesn’t mean creativity stops

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Business activity might be nearly choked off, but this is a busy country. People are still thinking, creating, Congress is still doing its thing. That means the U.S. Copyright Office is still on the job. For what’s going on inside, Federal Drive with Tom Temin. turned to the acting register of copyrights Maria Strong.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Strong, good to have you on.

Maria Strong: Thank you so much. Thanks, Tom.

Tom Temin:  And we should, I guess, point out the fact that you became acting register just in January of this year after a fairly good number of years in the Copyright Office. And so what’s it like walking into something that suddenly the bottom fell out in terms of operation and normalcy?

Maria Strong: Thanks for the question. Yes, I’ve been at the Copyright Office for 10 years. And when our former register resigned at the end of last year, I was appointed in an interim capacity by the Librarian [of Congress] Dr. Carla Hayden, to be the acting register. So I came in with a commitment to make sure that we continued our work. We maintain the momentum of all of our services to Congress, to the public, to the courts and to the other Executive Branch agencies. I did not plan and I think none of us did for a pandemic. So, you know, the work of the office has been to continue what we had been doing, but also to adapt very rapidly in very flexible ways to the current situation that affect our services.

Tom Temin:  And what is the level of activity? What’s the incoming workload like these days?

Maria Strong: Well, our work continues, as I mentioned, so our first and foremost obligation is to serve Congress. And so our legal team, both in the General Counsel’s Office and the Office of Policy and International Affairs has been able to work completely remotely so we maintain that service level to them. We continue our litigation our regulatory work, our outreach to our Executive Branch colleagues. That continues if anything in heightened a little bit in terms of administering our services, for example, registration and recommendation, we continue to receive claims for those services and so we are able to work remotely in most cases. Where we cannot work remotely is due to the fact that we have discontinued our mail services and some of our services do involve paper-based claims. So mail and those documents are being date-stamped and sent off to our off-site facilities and we will make those come back to us in an orderly fashion when that decision is made. So in terms of the office level of work, we continue at a rapid pace. We were able to convert to full telework quite rapidly. Our staff had already been telework eligible. So we went from about 65% right before all this happened to the current 98% teleworking. So we are able to continue our services remotely and where we need to make adjustments, we are doing so and advising the public on our website.

Tom Temin:  Well, does that mean that someone applying for a copyright has to wait now or can you still issue copyrights?

Maria Strong: Oh, no, they don’t have to wait. So most of our registration claims actually do come in electronically so you have a claim that’s electronic. The deposit material is electronic and the fee comes in electronically. And those are continuing to be processed. What sometimes happens is you might have an electronic claim with a physical deposit. And so we have to marry those up. That is a little challenging, but we have made flexibilities available so that if someone does have a physical deposit, they can under oath, give us a photocopy or a scan, basically, of what their physical deposit looks like. And they send that in to us and we can continue to process that and then we’ll connect everything later when we get the access to the physical deposits. Most of our registrations are in those two buckets. We do receive very few physical paper and physical deposits those will definitely be delayed for processing. But our registration staff has a lot of work to do on hand, and we continue to process incoming, so people are still welcome to use our website 24/7.

Tom Temin:  So if someone still writes their songs with a quill and a piece of parchment that’s lined, they should probably make a PDF of it and get it on in?

Maria Strong: Yes, well, actually copyright attaches at the moment you put that quill to the piece of paper. So the copyright protection exists at that point. To get additional benefits under the law, we encourage folks to register their claim of copyright with the Copyright Office. So copyright registration gives additional bonuses and legal benefits for those but copyright exists at the moment you’ve put your quill to the paper.

Tom Temin:  We’re speaking with Maria Strong, acting register of copyrights at the U.S. Copyright Office, part of the Library of Congress. And are you also in touch with your counterparts at the trademark office at USPTO? And is there any lockstep in their activity in yours or do they kind of run their own dynamics?

Maria Strong: Well, they do run their own thing. We are the principal agency that administers the Copyright Act. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office obviously administers patents and trademarks. Copyright is different from Patent and Trademarks in the sense that as I mentioned earlier, we are voluntary, you do not have to register to get a copyright, whereas for patents and trademarks you do. So we, you know, run our own separate systems where we do crossover on the matter of, for example, policy and international trade is we work with them as part of an interagency team to examine, you know, copyright law developments in other countries. That’s where our coordination and consultation definitely crosses over. But as a matter of administrating, the various acts, we are separate. Where we have converged is very recently in the sense that we’d both taken advantage of the recent cares act that was passed by Congress and signed by the Senate that gives both of our agencies certain emergency relief during times of national emergency. And that bill passed on a Friday and lo and behold, the next Tuesday, both of us had issued certain emergency relief declarations to take advantage of some of the flexibilities afforded in that act. We did not coordinate on that. It’s just that we both saw the need of making sure that we were able to serve our users in a flexible way during those challenging times.

Tom Temin:  And I guess it helps you think about the starving artists right now who can’t even wait tables to make money. So it’s kind of a rough situation for everybody involved. And with respect to the interaction, you might have directly say, with phone calls, or perhaps somebody might need to come in some time to the Copyright Office, how are you interacting or are you able to interact with people that may have a question?

Maria Strong: Well, that service continues, actually, our Public Information Office does have a walk-in capability. And that obviously is closed when the Library closed the buildings to the public in early March. However, we’ve always had an online call system so that continues to be very active. We continue to receive thousands of calls per week, and we are also answering thousands of emails coming in from the public per week. So that service has remained open, ready for business as well.

Tom Temin:  Before this, what level of telework was typical for the Copyright Office or was any of it?

Maria Strong: Um, actually, we did take advantage of a lot of teleworking. We have various divisions that actually rely heavily on telework, for example, Public Information Office and our registration team. Like I said, before all this happened, about 65% of our office was eligible for telework. That’s not to say that 65% of the folks were out at any given day, but a lot of people did take advantage of the one day a week or perhaps two days a week telework. So we, over the recent years have continued to emphasize the growth of telework. So when we had to switch to maintain health and safety considerations in early to mid-March, we were able to do so very quickly. And I will like to, you know, say kudos to our colleagues in the office of the information technology, OCIO, and the Library. They, you know, were fabulous in making sure that we were able to get served with the additional laptops to really hike up that number of eligibility. So we were able to transfer very seamless and very quickly, because we had already had that foundation in place.

Tom Temin:  And how do you stay in touch with direct report managers? Is there some sort of a daily teleconference situation?

Maria Strong: Yes, we have about 440 employees and basically seven sort of divisions. Each, you know, leader gets to manage their own division the way they see fit in terms of the way in which I coordinate with my senior management. It’s everything from phone calls to emails to various teleconferencing facilities. We have two at the office, so you know, your headphones are on for quite a bit during the day. I will say that, in my experience, I find that this time, there’s a lot more efficiency and getting things done on – via the telephone route. I think there’s also a corresponding more amount of emails. Just yesterday we held an officewide teleconference. So we could bring everybody up to speed in one time and place. So we use all of the technology available and are at our means and I think folks are finding that it’s, you know, the best way we can to stay connected. It’s certainly not a replacement for, you know, the the hallway coffee runs, things like that where you actually can get a lot of information and work done. But we are doing the best we can. And I’d say if anything, my experience has been that we’re equally efficient and productive as we’ve been before.

Tom Temin:  And what room of the house do you work from and do any kids or spouses or anything else pets get underfoot?

Maria Strong: No pets, two kids. I have two teenage sons who seem to be in the nocturnal time schedule, which is great because it allows me basically 12 hours during the day to work unimpeded from my kitchen before they come down to raid the fridge. So I haven’t had to worry about that. I will say there are a lot of folks in our office who do have younger children or taking care of older folks. And you know, the Library has provided quite a few flexibilities to make sure that people are able to complete their 40 hours work week, you know, throughout seven days, not five days. And we have all have been able to as an office take advantage of some of the recent legislation that has also allowed for that flexibility and added telework and administrative leave. So I’m you know, very sympathetic to those folks who do have families, cats, dogs and other things to keep them safe but also to make sure that they have the ability to get the work done that they need, and continue to contribute as they see fit.

Tom Temin:  Well keep the Hot Pockets in stock. Maria Strong is acting register of copyrights at the U.S. Copyright Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Maria Strong: Thank you so much. Be safe and have a good day.

Tom Temin:  We’ll post this interview at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone. Stay up to date on your agency’s latest responses to coronavirus visit our special resource page at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com

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