Copyright Office draws heat for proposed IE-only rule

The Copyright Office of the Library of Congress has found itself in the middle of some heated online debate about a proposal to limit full use of a new copyright registration Web site to only one browser.

Critics decry that the choice of the browser, Microsoft Internet Explorer, shuts out users of other less popular browsers and operating systems such as Linux and Apple Computer’s Macintosh. They allege that the agency is ignoring the World Wide Web Consortium’s standards for formatting Web sites in favor of designing the site with one vendor’s product in mind.

The office says its browser choice is limited by the commercial software package it will be using to manage the registration system, as well as the time needed to test other browsers. Under the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005, Congress mandated that the Copyright Office put a copyright preregistration system in place by Oct. 24. Additional browsers could not be tested in time for the initial rollout.

“There was, and is, no intent to endorse a particular vendor. The office’s goal is to make the system available to everyone, and therefore to enable frequently used browsers,” said Marybeth Peters, the Register of Copyright.

A proposed rule published Aug. 4 in the Federal Register sparked the debate.

The Copyright Office is quickly ramping up an online system for registering an unpublished work before it is distributed commercially. The system will run on Siebel 7.7, from Siebel Systems Inc. of San Mateo, Calif. That system has only been tested to work with Internet Explorer versions 5.1 or later, and America Online’s Netscape 7.02, according to Peters. As a result, the office does want to guarantee that users can register using other browsers.

“Present users of these browsers may experience problems when filing claims,” the notice warned. The Web site itself will still be viewable with other browsers. The office is soliciting feedback to find out whether requiring Internet Explorer for registrations would affect users of the system.

Once the comments are reviewed, the office may “decide to offer a non-electronic preregistration option,” Peters said. “If the office determines that there is a problem, and the electronic system cannot guarantee that all who wish to file can, we will offer a paper-based option.”

Since the office posted the notice, participants in various Web and mailing list forums have criticized the proposal.

“Not everyone uses IE, so why require it (or the product of any specific vendor)? There’s no reason I know of that the Copyright Office should be using or requiring IE-specific features,” e-mailed Esther Dyson, an IT consultant. Late last week, Dyson posted her displeasure on a mailing list about IT-related topics managed by David Farber, onetime chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission.

“[H]aving a publicly accessed government [W]ebsite available only to users of a single browser is inexcusable,” opined an editorial in the PC enthusiast Web site Ars Technica. “Government services provided online need to be accessible via a multiplicity of browsers and operating systems.”

Many sites had urged readers to voice their disapproval to the agency. The deadline for comments, which must be submitted by mail, is Aug. 22.

Internet Explorer is, by a wide margin, the most heavily used of Web browsers today. A June 2005 study by Janco Associates Inc. of Park City, Utah, estimated that around 85 percent of users deploy Internet Explorer, while the free, open-source browser Mozilla and its offshoot, Firefox, occupy about 4 percent each. Other browsers, such as Opera, Netscape and America Online’s in-house browsers, are operated by even fewer people.

To some extent, the outrage may be misplaced, as the Copyright Office is primarily interested in feedback from the individuals who will actually use the system in question. The system will limited to a select audience—namely, those individuals and companies who will be allowed to preregister a work before it is officially distributed, a small group still be determined by the office. Moviemakers, for instance, may want to copyright an expensive work in production long before it hits the theaters.

Also, reliance on Internet Explorer should be short-lived. The Copyright Office team plans to upgrade to a newer version of the Siebel software which supports other browsers such as Netscape 7.2., Firefox 1.0.3 and Mozilla 1.7.7. Peters said that even the present version of the Siebel software “may work well with other browsers,” but the office has not tested other browsers with the software.

“The office intends to test as many browsers as it can identify and make all possible adjustments in the code to facilitate use of them. It’s a question of resources,” Peters added.

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