The safe harbor provisions in § 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provide a mechanism that insulates online service providers from monetary damages for infringing materials posted or stored by their users.  To receive this protection, service providers must designate an agent to receive notice of claims of infringement with the Copyright Office and publicly post the agent’s contact information on the website.  A recent case in the Northern District of California, Oppenheimer v. Allvoices, Inc., examined whether service providers can avail themselves of the § 512(c) safe harbor for infringing acts that precede designation of such an agent.

Allvoices is an online service provider that maintains a community-driven platform for the exchange of ideas as well as graphical, written, and audio content.  Allvoices provides users with financial incentives to upload content to the site, and treats such users as “citizen journalists” and independent contractors.  While it began providing access to contributor content in 2008, Allvoices did not designate its DMCA agent until March 2011.

The plaintiff, David Oppenheimer, is a professional photographer whose photographs were posted on Allvoices’s website by contributors in January 2011.  Oppenheimer learned that his photographs had been posted on the Allvoices website in February 2011, prior to Allvoices’s DMCA agent designation.  Oppenheimer sent a cease and desist letter to Allvoices in August 2011, several months after Allvoices designated its DMCA agent.  While Allvoices eventually removed the photographs, Oppenheimer alleged that Allvoices failed to reply to his cease and desist letter and failed to terminate the accounts of repeat infringers, as required by the DMCA.

 Allvoices argued that it was entitled to the protection of the § 512(c) safe harbor for all alleged infringements, not just infringement occurring after it had designated its DMCA agent.  Allvoices did not cite any authority for this position, but maintained that, because the DMCA does not expressly carve out or preserve liability for pre-designation infringement, Congress had intended for the safe harbor to apply to such infringement.

The court rejected Allvoices’s argument and held that, under the plain language of the DMCA, an online service provider may invoke the § 512(c) safe harbor only if it has registered a DMCA agent with the Copyright Office.  According to the court, designation of an agent is a “predicate, express condition” for application of the safe harbors, so Allvoices could not avail itself of the safe harbors with respect to infringement that occurred prior to designation.  The court cited two previous Northern District of California cases that came to similar conclusions, Louis Vuitton Malletier, S.A. v. Akanoc Solutions, Inc. and Nat’l Photo Group, LLC v. Allvoices, Inc. (note that Allvoices was also a defendant in the latter case).  On the merits, the court held that Oppenheimer sufficiently alleged claims of direct, contributory, and vicarious infringement to overcome Allvoices’s motion to dismiss those claims.

A question remains regarding the period of time during which Allvoices may be liable for infringement of Oppenheimer’s photographs.  Specifically, the court did not address whether Allvoices’s potential liability is limited to the period during which the photographs were posted on Allvoices’s website prior to the date that Allvoices designated its DMCA agent with the Copyright Office.  Regardless, the message is clear: online service providers should designate a DMCA agent with the Copyright Office as early as possible in order to obtain the protection of the applicable DMCA safe harbors.