A Work in Progress

Another major US government information technology project is on the rocks, according to the Washington Post. This time the agency is not the FBI but the Copyright Office, where transition to a mainly Web-based registration procedure is producing delays of eighteen months and longer:

The library's inspector general has warned that the backlog threatens the integrity of the U.S. copyright system.

The irony is that the slowdown stems from a new $52 million electronic process that is supposed to speed the way writers and others register their literary, musical or visual work.

Bureaucracy-bashers in the private sector should consider their own industries' snafus, which seldom hit the front pages. Among computer professionals, the high failure rate of major projects is well known. The consulting firm IT Cortex has a sobering page documenting the travails of business as well as government. Consequences can be even worse for private vendors if stalled orders during a transition cut off income and threaten to destroy years of carefully developed good will.

The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. is still the classic reference after nearly 35 years. And project managers everywhere are all too aware of Brooks's Law: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later." Frustrating as this crunch has been for applicants and Copyright Office employees, it's also an experiment that can help future digital transitions.


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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