Digital Millennium Copyright Act

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

An aspiring actress moves to California and finds her life threatened. While standard fare for pulp fiction, the case of Garcia v. Google involves a twist on this well-worn plot line that not even the most imaginative Hollywood scriptwriter could invent.

Cindy Lee Garcia answered a casting call for a low-budget amateur movie with the working title Desert Warrior. The film’s writer and producer told her that it would be a “historical Arabian Desert adventure film.” Ms. Garcia received $500 for her performance in the film. It turns out the actress was misled by the producer, Mark Basseley Youssef (aka Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, aka Sam Bacile), a Coptic Christian from Egypt, who was reportedly working in conjunction with an American non-profit, Media for Christ. The filmmakers had no intention of making an adventure film; rather, the end product – titled Innocence of Muslims – is an anti-Islamic account of the Prophet Mohammed that many Muslims find highly offensive and blasphemous.

In July 2012, Mr. Youssef posted a 14-minute trailer of the film to YouTube, which is owned and operated by Google. Ms. Garcia appears for about five seconds in the trailer. The film overdubs her voice with lines she never actually spoke. In September 2012, an Egyptian cleric issued a fatwa against all involved in the film, calling on Muslims to “kill the director, the producer, and the actors and everyone who helped and promoted the film.” Ms. Garcia claims that she began to receive death threats and was forced to take precautionary measures at great expense to protect herself from retribution.

Sending takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Ms. Garcia demanded that Google remove all copies of the trailer from YouTube. Google declined to do so. In September 2012, Ms. Garcia sued Google, later also naming YouTube, asserting claims for copyright infringement. In October 2012, Ms. Garcia moved for a preliminary injunction, seeking to have Google take down all copies of the movie trailer from YouTube.
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Over the past year, a number of courts across the country have decided cases involving contributory infringement and the application of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s § 512(c) safe harbor in the social media context. Unfortunately for those who favor a uniform approach to the law, the precedent being developed is in many ways inconsistent.

In today’s information economy, content owners are faced with a challenging decision regarding digital content. On the one hand, the viral nature of social media can mean unprecedented exposure as digital content is shared. On the other, that opportunity can come with significant legal risk if companies take an insufficiently careful approach to intellectual property