The public hears a lot of discussion about what government can do to help our economy grow.  Mostly, we hear about tax policy, regulations, trade, infrastructure and human capital issues, like education.  And this makes sense:  All of these policies tremendously impact our economy and it’s critical that we think about the best ways to structure our system to create an environment that encourages greater productivity, innovation, and job creation.

We hear much less about issues like property rights.  In part, that’s because we take for granted that we all agree that a central purpose of government is to prevent theft.  This confidence in the basic concept of ownership allows us to make important investments:  You wouldn’t bother painting your house or stocking a store with goods to sell if you thought someone could come in, kick you out of it, and take if for himself. 

Yet property right are more complicated that just preventing ordinary theft.  Today, intellectual property rights are just as central to our economic system.  Entrepreneurs, investors, artists and other creators all need to know that they can own ideas, as well as physical property.

Intellectual property issues have become even more important today in the internet age.  As I’ve written before, for all of its benefits, technology has also made it much easier for people to steal ideas and content.  In fact, American businesses are estimated to lose about $250 billion each year to intellectual property theft, which is more than they have to pay in corporate taxes. 

But the need to protect intellectual property has been recognized since the founding of our country – in fact, you can see it right there in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which reads “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

One way the federal government fulfills this charge is through the Copyright Office, which oversees copyright applications and helps administer the law.  There have been growing concerns, however, that the Copyright Office has become outdated as the need for copyright protection—and the potential for abuse—has exploded.  As the Motion Picture Association of America explained in a recent letter:

…the core copyright industries—those primarily engaged in creating, producing, distributing, and exhibiting copyrighted works—now contribute more than $1 trillion to the country’s GDP, represent 6.7 percent of the U.S. economy, and are responsible for 5.5 million jobs, according to a recent study by the International Intellectual Property Alliance. The growth of copyright as a large driver of our nation’s cultural and economic prosperity, paired with the rise of the digital economy, means that the demands on the Copyright Office are increasing in both complexity and importance…

Certainly it is worthwhile for Congress to take a look at how the current Copyright Office is structured and to consider what changes need to be made so that it can meet the needs of the modern era.  Thankfully, these conversations are going on today, with hearings being held and legislation being drafted. 

All this is unlikely to make the evening news—or, more appropriately in today’s age, Drudge or Yahoo News—but it’s an incredibly important process and ought to be a priority.  Americans take for granted that we have a function system for protecting property rights, but we will certainly notice and feel an impact if we allow our systems to deteriorate and become too antiquated to handle the modern era.