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DMCA abuse: how corporations are using US copyright law to harass and silence individuals

By Murray Hunter - posted Monday, 26 September 2016


The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was unanimously passed by the United States Senate on 12th October 1998, and signed into law by President Clinton on 28th October the same year. The Act was put into law to interpret and enact two 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties which dealt with copyright circumvention and providing Internet service providers (ISP) and online service providers (OSP) safe harbour against copyright liability, provided they meet specific requirements.

The DMCA criminalizes the production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures (commonly called digital rights management) that control access to copyrighted works. Further, the DMCA also criminalizes the act of circumventing any access control, even if there is no actual infringement of the copyrighted material itself, i.e., providing a mere link to a third site where suspected copyright material exists is criminal.

The Act has extended the reach of US law beyond its traditional geographical jurisdiction. Moreover, the Act has given copyright right holders a "lethal weapon" to utilize against parties who allegedly breach their claimed copyright. That is, the ability to claim copyright breach directly against any individual. Further, the Act enables copyright holders to force ISPs and OSPs to take down any identified alleged infringing material immediately from any internet site.

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However the act doesn't give respondents any recourse against a DMCA takedown notice before any material is taken down by the ISPs and OSPs.

Through the DMCA takedown notice procedure a copyright holder becomes a prosecuting judge. A copyright holder need only serve a takedown notice on an ISP or OSP to take down any third party's material from the internet to have it instantly removed.

The rules and procedures of this process are prescribed under section 512 of the Act. ISPs and OSPs are given immunity from prosecution from both the copyright holders and respondents to takedown notices, if they strictly adhere to the takedown and counter-takedown notice procedures prescribed in Section 512.

This 'safe harbor' provision gives ISPs and OSPs incentive to cooperate with copyright holders who are in the majority corporations. Section 512 even exempts ISPs and OSPs from 'good faith' in the removal of any material, i.e., they may know the takedown notice is flawed in some way, providing the procedures are followed. In effect ISPs and OSPs become the agents of the copyright holders and aren't obliged to consider the interests of their users, except through facilitating the counter-takedown notice procedure.

As mentioned above, the material identified in any takedown notice must be removed from the site identified. The respondent can only respond to the copyright holder through issuing a counter notice which identifies the person who put up the material, submits to the jurisdiction of a US court, and subjects the respondent to the laws of perjury in the response. It is the responsibility of the ISP or OSP to pass on the counter notice to the copyright holder and if legal action hasn't been taken against the respondent in the takedown notice within 10-14 days, the ISP/OSP may reinstate the original material to their website.

The DMCA takedown notice procedure deems a respondent of a takedown notice guilty. There is no provision for a hearing from the respondent to either the purported copyright holder or ISP/OSP before the material is removed. At a minimum any material subject to a takedown notice cannot reappear for at least 14 days.

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The takedown notice procedure is dreadfully biased towards the purported copyright holder. Section 512 gives copyright holders protection and power over respondents to takedown notices. For example, unlike respondents who decide to file a counter notice, the copyright holder issuing the takedown notice in the first place, need not submit itself to the jurisdiction of the US legal system. The issuer of a DMCA takedown notice may be, and is in many cases, a foreign corporation with no intention to submit itself to the jurisdiction of US law. The corporation can use the DMCA for convenience to rid the internet of some material at its own whim, where it is almost practically impossible by a respondent to make legal claim for issuing a false takedown notice.

If a respondent of a DMCA takedown notice takes a copyright holder to court, there is no guarantee that the issuer of the notice will submit itself to US law, unless it is already a US legal entity. Even within the US itself, some issuers of takedown notices have escaped jurisdiction of the US court system.

Sadly, US case law has tended to protect the issuers of false takedown notices. In 2004, the decision in Rossi V. the Motion Picture Association of America found that the DMCA takedown notice issuer had to actually know their claim was false and not merely lazy or mistaken for a respondent to succeed in their claim against a party who issued a false takedown notice.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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