The Digital Millennium Copyright Act: The Copyright Office Examines Whether it Needs Revamping

As most internet users of today know, music, videos, poems, photographs, and various other creative works are often posted on social media and other sites without the permission of the work’s creator.  These postings violate the creator’s exclusive right to distribute his or her own work, one of the central rights protected by copyright law and based on the Constitution.[1]  To address concerns of increasing copyright infringement online, Congress enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the “DMCA”) in 1998.  The DMCA allows copyright owners to submit takedown notices to internet service providers (who provide the platforms for postings, think YouTube, SoundCloud, Twitter, etc., abbreviated in this article to “ISPs”), demanding that access to an infringed work be blocked or the work removed.  In exchange for compliance with the DMCA and the swift removal of infringing materials, ISPs are exempted from liability for copyright infringement.

Although the DMCA may have provided a sufficient[2] remedy for copyright holders in 1998, copyright owners in recent years have complained that the increase in infringing posts resulting from the proliferation of user-upload sites such as eBay, SoundCloud, Vimeo, and others makes the takedown process onerous.  For example, since 2012 the music recording industry has sent takedown notices for over 17 million infringements.[3]  Google receives on average over 75 million URL takedown requests per month, and must use computer programs to sift through them all.[4] In response to the uproar from copyright holders, Congress has requested the Copyright Office conduct a study to determine the effectiveness of the DMCA.[5]  The study is currently ongoing, with the Copyright Office receiving more than 92,000 submissions in its first round of comments.[6]

In reviewing comments submitted during the first round, battle lines have clearly been drawn between the creators of works and ISPs.  In support of its position that the DMCA sufficiently protects the various parties’ interests, in its comment Amazon focused on the economic growth driven by the DMCA’s safe harbor provision, noting that, because of the safe harbor, ISPs have not been required to conduct the “difficult” task of policing posted content, a policy that has been “crucial to the growth of the Internet.”[7]  Amazon further asserted that the DMCA strikes “the right balance” between providing rights holders with the ability to remove infringing content while allowing ISPs the ability to “innovate and host ever-increasing amounts and types of content without fear of massive liability based on the activities of their users.”[8]  Other ISPs argue that, in fact, the takedown system is being abused, with a “guilty until proven innocent” approach often leading to misuse and overreach.[9]  One Google-backed study, conducted by the Berkeley School of Law, found that almost 30 percent of takedown requests received in a six month period had validity issues.[10]

Creators of copyrighted works, however, assert that the take down provisions are not an adequate deterrent to infringement, [11] particularly when a majority of takedown notices are for infringing uses previously the target of a notice.[12]  To counteract the cycle of takedown-repost-takedown, many creators are arguing for a “takedown, stay down” provision, which would allow copyright holders to submit a takedown notice for a work once with the expectation that the work never appear again on the same platform.[13]  Indeed, in support of its position that the DMCA needs strengthening, the Artists Rights Society argues that the current takedown provisions, contrary to Congressional intent, favor ISPs, who profit from infringing posts through listing fees, advertising, and/or increased traffic.[14]  To restore balance, the Artists Rights Society recommends that online service providers be required to pay a percentage of the quantifiable revenues received from an infringing third-party user to the copyright owner.[15]  The Artists Rights Society does not elaborate on how these fees would be collected and dispersed.

Taking a slightly different course from both their fellow creators and the ISPs, the American Photographic Artists (“APA”) propose turning the tables on the oft-anonymous infringers who are benefitting from, according to the APA, a “de facto immunity” under the DMCA.  This de facto immunity is the product of the high cost of pursing a copyright infringement claim and the potentially low damages return (particularly for unregistered works),[16] making the pursuit of infringers essentially pointless.  Although it does not appear from its comment that the APA is advocating for one particular measure to shift the risk of infringement, one possibility the APA discusses is requiring an infringer to reimburse the copyright holder’s costs spent on a takedown.[17]

As the Copyright Office weighs these competing interests, it will also need to keep in mind how evolving technology may continue to impact takedown proceedings.  We will keep you updated on developments as the Copyright Office prepares its report. — Stephanie Martinez

 

[1] 17 U.S.C. § 106; U.S. Const. art. I § 8 cl. 8.

[2] Many would argue the DMCA never worked well and was instead poorly thought out and poorly executed.  See Chris Mills, These Three Dumb Examples Prove that Copyright Is Broken, BGR (May 24, 2016), http://bgr.com/2016/05/24/dmca-abuse-copyright-issues/.

[3] Randolph J. May & Seth L. Cooper, Copyright ‘Notice and Takedown’ System Needs Fixing (May 9, 2016) http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/technology/279179-copyright-notice-and-takedown-system-needs-fixing.

[4] Google, Transparency Report, https://www.google.com/transparencyreport/removals/copyright/.  Requests sent to Google are to remove links from Google’s search results due to infringing content on the website, not to remove the allegedly infringing content from the site itself.

[5] See United States Copyright Office, Section 512 Study, http://www.copyright.gov/policy/section512/.

[6] See United States Copryight Office, Requests for Public Comments: Digital Millennium Copyright Act Safe Harbor Provisions, https://www.regulations.gov/#!docketBrowser;rpp=25;so=ASC;sb=title;po=0;dct=PS;D=COLC-2015-0013;refD=COLC-2015-0013-0002.

[7] Amazon.com, Inc., Section 512 Study: Notice Docket No. USCO-2015-7 and Request for Public Comment, p. 3.

[8] Id.

[9] Caroline Craig, DMCA ‘Reform’ Harbors Return of SOPA, InfoWorld (May 20, 2016), http://www.infoworld.com/article/3072456/internet/dmca-reform-bill-harbors-return-of-sopa.html.

[10] Id.; Jennifer M. Urban, Joe Karaganis, & Brianna L. Shofield, Notice and Takedown In Everyday Practice, 11 (2016), available at http://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=847004104083015079003097000087118126055092036006058054127082102102096125010084120011039049035031006028001088081018024096080127018007025078012087102086098102098094112018040048025114126122121121117028006069023030065090123077101074065106086070087025106064&EXT=pdf.

[11] See American Photographic Artists, Inc., Initial Response to Notice of Inquiry 78 F.R. 13094 (Docket No 2015-7) Section 512 Study: Notice and Request For Public Comment, p. 2.

[12] In fact, the Federation of the Phonographic Industry has reported that 94% of its takedown notices are for “recordings uploaded repeatedly” to sites already notified of the infringing posting.  Randolph J. May & Seth L. Cooper, Copyright ‘Notice and Takedown’ System Needs Fixing, The Hill (May 9, 2016), http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/technology/279179-copyright-notice-and-takedown-system-needs-fixing.

[13] TorrentFreak, Ten Websites Hit With 70M DMCA Complaints In A Year, TorrentFreak (May 29, 2016), https://torrentfreak.com/ten-websites-hit-with-70m-dmca-complaints-in-a-year-160529/.

[14] See Artists Rights Society, Comments of Artists Rights Society, p. 2.

[15] Id.

[16] See American Photographic Artists, Inc., Initial Response to Notice of Inquiry 78 F.R. 13094 (Docket No 2015-7) Section 512 Study: Notice and Request For Public Comment, p. 3.

[17] Id.

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