Last Updated on July 11, 2016, 4:20 pm ET
*Guest post by Jonathan Band, policybandwidth*
There is an escalating war of words between supporters and detractors of the notice-and-takedown regime of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The content providers argue that the notice-and-takedown system is broken and advocate for its replacement with a notice-and-staydown system. The Internet industry responds that notice-and-takedown is essential to the vibrancy of the Internet, and that the regime demanded by the content providers would require costly and ineffective filtering and monitoring.
This debate about whether the legislative compromise reflected by the notice-and–takedown system still works misses the larger context in which Congress created the notice-and-takedown system and in which the system must be evaluated. Congress enacted the notice-and-takedown system in 1998 as one title of the much broader DMCA. This broader statute, in a separate title, established prohibitions on the circumvention of technological protection measures. These two titles were adopted together to create a balanced approach to copyright enforcement in the Internet environment. Thus, the effectiveness–and fairness–of the notice-and-takedown system should not be considered in isolation, but in relation to the effectiveness and fairness of the anti-circumvention provisions.
The Latest Round of the Debate
For years the content providers have complained about various provisions of the DMCA’s safe harbors for Internet service providers, but their primary target has been the notice-and-takedown system codified at 17 U.S.C. § 512(c) and (d). The latest round of attack started with a full-page ad on June 20, 2016, in the Washington D.C. newspapers The Hill, Politico, and Roll Call placed by music industry organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America and well-known recording artists including Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney. The ad asserted that the DMCA “is broken and no longer works for creators.” It claimed that the DMCA “was written and passed in an era that is technologically out-of-date compared to the era in which we live.” The ad did not specify precisely why “the DMCA simply doesn’t work,” but observed that “it’s impossible for tens of thousands of individual songwriters and artists to muster the resources necessary to comply with its application.” Based on earlier statements by the RIAA and other music industry associations, this presumably was an allusion to the burden of copyright owners sending notices to a platform every time a user uploads infringing content—a burden that would be alleviated by a notice-and-staydown regime. The ad further stated that “the tech companies who benefit from the DMCA were not the intended protectorate when it was signed into law nearly two decades ago.
The ad provoked a quick response from the tech sector. Matt Schruers with the Computer & Communications Industry Association noted that RIAA was asking Congress “to upend one of the legal cornerstones of the Internet.” Schruers observed that the DMCA’s safe harbors “allowed the Internet to become what it is today—a worldwide democratizing platform for communication, creativity, and commerce.” Schruers stated tens of thousands of Internet platforms relied on the safe harbors to provide millions of creators a cost-free means of reaching a worldwide audience without the interference of traditional gatekeepers such as record labels, movie studios, or book publishers.
Michael Beckerman with the Internet Association similarly asserted that “If you love the Internet, you should thank the DMCA.” He explained that Internet companies should not be responsible for “policing every single piece of online content” because they “don’t have access to constantly changing licensing information, nor are they the appropriate party to make legal judgments about whether content qualifies as fair use….” He added that many Internet companies voluntarily employ “DMCA-plus” programs to provide greater flexibility to copyright owners to address infringing activity.
Neil Fried with the Motion Picture Association of America replied by arguing that “Congress did not intend the DMCA to create a relentless game of Whac-A-Mole.” Fried further complained that “content creators must still endlessly notify technology companies of the presence of unauthorized content, even when it is the same parties posting the same material.” However, unlike the RIAA and the other music industry associations, Fried did not call on Congress to amend Section 512. Instead, it urged the Internet companies to “engage voluntarily and collaboratively with the creative community on solutions that work for everyone….” Fried asked for “better help from technology companies to steer traffic away from websites dedicated to theft….” Fried provided “automatically removing duplicative copies of the same unauthorized content” as an example of how effective notice and staydown could be achieved.
What’s Missing From This Discussion?
The Internet Association’s Michael Beckerman stated that “the bargain” at the heart of the DMCA “is a simple: rightsholders have a mechanism to address infringement without engaging in a lengthy and expensive battle, and internet platforms that respond quickly to remove infringing content are held harmless for the actions of their users.” MPAA’s Fried referred to this bargain as the DMCA’s “grand design.” And CCIA’s Matt Schruers described it as “a compromise between copyright holders and online services.”
Judge Leval, in his recent decision in Capitol Records v. Vimeo, agreed with this characterization of Section 512 as a compromise:
what Congress intended in passing § 512(c) was to strike a compromise under which, in return for the obligation to take down infringing works promptly on receipt of notice of infringement from the owner, Internet service providers would be relieved of liability for user-posted infringements of which they were unaware, as well as of the obligation to scour matter posted on their services to ensure against copyright infringement. The purpose of the compromise was to make economically feasible the provision of valuable Internet services while expanding protections of the interests of copyright owners through the new notice-and-takedown provision.
But the compromise embodied by Section 512 is part of a larger compromise embodied by titles I and II of the DMCA. Title II created Section 512. Title I implemented the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Copyright Treaty and Performances and Phonograms Treaty by creating prohibitions on the circumvention of technological protection measures and the removal of copyright management information. These provisions now constitute Chapter 12 of title 17, including the controversial Section 1201.
Title I and title II originally were introduced as separate bills (the WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaties Implementation Act and the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, respectively). The WIPO implementation bill was supported by the content industry and opposed by sectors of the technology industry. The safe harbor bill was supported by the online service providers and opposed by the content industry. In the face of this opposition, both bills stalled. Senator Orrin Hatch, then Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a bold legislative move, merged the two bills into one. He calculated that the content industry would be willing to accept the safe harbors in exchange for WIPO implementation. This calculation proved correct.
The content providers believe that Section 1201 has benefitted them enormously. In response to a notice of inquiry recently issued by the Copyright Office concerning Section 1201, the Association of American Publishers, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Recording Industry Association of America filed joint comments stating that “the protections of Chapter 12 have enabled an enormous variety of flexible, legitimate digital business models to emerge and thrive….” BSA|The Software Alliance, the Copyright Alliance, the Software and Information Industry Association, the Entertainment Software Association, and Microsoft similarly asserted that Section 1201 has facilitated the secure online distribution of content.
In other words, the content providers applaud title I of the DMCA (Section 1201) as much as they complain about title II of the DMCA (Section 512). This is not surprising. Although Congress attempted to achieve a degree of balance within each title—although each title contains internal compromises–at the end of the day, the grand bargain of the DMCA was the marriage of the WIPO implementation and the safe harbor bills. According to the content providers, title I has “enabled an enormous variety of flexible, legitimate digital business modes to emerge and thrive.” And according to the Internet industry, title II has “allowed the Internet to become what it is today—a worldwide democratizing platform for communication, creativity, and commerce.”
Given the tradeoffs that Congress made in assembling the DMCA, policymakers should not assess the impact of any title in isolation. In particular, any adverse impact content providers claim they suffer on account of the safe harbors in Section 512 must be weighed against the benefit they receive from Section 1201 (which has had an adverse impact on other stakeholders).