What is the DMCA?
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) is an amendment to the United States Copyright Act (i.e., the federal copyright law) signed into effect in October 1998 that, among other things, provides certain limitations on the liability of online service providers (“OSP”) for acts of copyright infringement.
The DMCA actually contains two types of liability limitations:
The first protects an OSP which provides a link to copyrighted online material located on another site.
The second, which we discuss in more detail here, limits the liability of OSPs that store copyrighted materials on a system or network they control or operate if (among other things), (i) such storage was directed by a third-party user, (ii) the service provider has designated an agent (also referred to as a “take-down agent”) to receive notifications of claimed infringement and (iii) the service provider has both registered the agent’s contact information with the U.S. Copyright Office and publicly provided such information on its website.
It is important to note that, because the DMCA protects against claims of copyright infringement and not other types of wrongdoing, it will not help against claims of infringement concerning trademarks or service marks or claims of defamation, stolen trade secrets, etc.
Why is the DMCA important?
The DMCA is a “safe-harbor,” which is legalese for a written exception to the general rule that an OSP is liable for the acts of infringement its users commit. Because the DMCA is intended to protect OSPs from inadvertent infringement by third parties, it will not help in a situation where the OSP itself is accused of infringement (i.e., posting copyrighted content in its own right), or where it knows content it hosts infringes a copyright.
Since the DMCA can be an absolute defense to liability for copyright infringement by a third party, registering a take-down agent may even prevent someone from suing the OSP for infringement in the first place.
Does the DMCA apply to me?
In essence, you qualify as an OSP and are eligible for protection under the DMCA if you operate, manage or host a website (including a blog) that allows users (aka third parties) to upload content. That can include the following activities:
- Allowing users to post comments or reviews, or respond to discussion threads
- Allowing users to upload media, such as pictures, .gifs or videos
The above is true because the definition of “infringe” or “infringement” is very broad and captures many activities. For example, if your site allows users to submit a thumbnail sized avatar and the user chooses a copyrighted image, you can be liable. Knowledge or intent are not relevant for purposes of liability for infringement under the copyright law; so, you can be held responsible for copyright infringement even if you have no idea these activities are going on (and, if you have not registered a DMCA agent, even if you take down the offending material immediately after being notified!).
How can I obtain protection under the DMCA?
With 3 easy steps!
1. Designate a copyright take-down agent to receive DMCA takedown notices.
In order to designate an agent, an OSP must provide some basic information and pay a filing fee ($105 for the first OSP, $35 for up to 10 additional OSPs) to the U.S. Copyright Office. T
he requested information includes the full legal name of the OSP(s) and contact information (including email address) for the agent and the U.S. Copyright Office has provided a form for this purpose. The U.S. Copyright Office maintains an official list of designated agents, which allows a person who believes his or her work is being infringed to quickly send a takedown notice.
2. Adopt a copyright infringement policy and notify site users.
The OSP must publish a statement on its website to provide notice to the site users of its copyright infringement policies, the consequences of repeated infringing activity, and advising users of the takedown agent’s contact information. Many people include a DMCA policy in their terms of service, but it may also be placed in a separate document.
3. Watch for and properly comply with any notice of claimed infringement received.
A person claiming infringement must provide the OSP a signed written notice meeting certain specifications, including: identification of the work which is allegedly infringing, a demand to remove such material, the claimant’s valid contact information, and statements to the effect that (i) the claimant is the owner of the material (or authorized to act on the owner’s behalf) and (ii) the material is not being used in an authorized manner.
Recall that the DMCA protects only against copyright infringement, not against other types of accused wrongdoing. Therefore, an OSP must be careful to make sure any notice it receives alleges a copyright infringement and not some other type of wrong doing.
Also note that not all cease and desist letters or takedown notices will be proper, and an OSP is not under a legal obligation to comply with notices that do not meet the requirements. If a takedown notice does meet the proper requirements, an OSP should: (1) “expeditiously” remove or disable access to the potentially infringing material (unfortunately, the standard for “expeditious” is unclear) and (2) notify the potentially infringing user that his or her material has been removed to allow them to file a counter-notice. Often, a potentially offending user will not file a counter-notice, but if he or she does, the OSP should forward the counter-notice to the person who claimed infringement. That person must then file a lawsuit within 14 days; otherwise, the OSP may reinstate the disputed material.
While there is no requirement under the DMCA for an OSP to remove any material(s), the receipt of a valid takedown notice acts to give the OSP notice of the allegedly infringing activity, and therefore ineligible for limited liability. The OSP may then face liability for continuing to host the material.
Consult a qualified attorney if you are unsure of what the notice or demand letter is alleging or if you have questions about whether you must comply with a takedown notice.
I didn’t register a DMCA agent and now someone has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against me. Am I out of luck?
In order to benefit from the safe harbor protections, an OSP must register a DMCA agent prior to an allegation of infringement which it wishes to defeat with the registration.
Even if an OSP has not registered a DMCA agent, it can still defend against a claim on the merits of the alleged infringement. For example, if the amount of supposedly infringing material is small or is posted in a way meant to be educational and includes a citation for the material, you may have a defense under the fair use doctrine (although a fair use defense may not apply depending on the facts of each particular situation). Some cases also indicate that a defense may exist by asserting that infringing third-party posts are simply not the responsibility of the OSP. However, if an OSP has not registered under the DMCA, it will not be able to claim that it was unaware of the infringing activity or that it quickly removed the offending material.