The Law and Business of Social Media
March 16, 2015 - Copyright

First-Ever Award of “Any Damages” for Fraudulent DMCA Takedowns Under Section 512(f)

Under section 512(f) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), copyright owners are liable for “any damages” stemming from knowingly false accusations of infringement that result in removal of the accused online material. Section 512(f) aims to deter abuse of the DMCA requirement that service providers process takedown requests from purported copyright owners, but such abuses remain rampant. (E.g., as reported here and here.) In fact, until the March 2, 2015, decision in Automattic Inc. v. Steiner (adopting magistrate’s earlier recommendation), no court had awarded damages under section 512(f).

The case concerned a blog by Oliver Hotham, who had contacted a group called “Straight Pride UK,” identifying himself as “a student and freelance journalist” and submitting a list of questions. Nick Steiner responded by identifying himself as the “Press Officer” for Straight Pride UK and providing a PDF file titled “Press Statement – Oliver Hotham.pdf.” The press statement laid out Straight Pride UK’s opposition to “everyone [in the UK] being forced to accept homosexuals” and stated its mission of ensuring “that heterosexuals are allowed to have a voice and speak out against being oppressed.” Hotham posted material from the press statement on his blog.

Steiner, apparently displeased with the subsequent negative attention, sent an email to Automattic, Inc., the blog’s host, invoking section 512(f). Steiner claimed to hold copyright in the posted material and requested that Automattic remove the blog post, and Automattic complied. Hotham, however, again posted material from the Press Statement to his blog, prompting Steiner to send two more removal requests by email to Automattic. Automattic denied those requests, citing their legal insufficiency. Automattic and Hotham then filed a lawsuit to recover damages related to Steiner’s misrepresentation that the blog infringed his copyright.

The court easily found that Steiner had violated section 512(f) because he “could not have reasonably believed that the Press Statement he sent to Hotham was protected under copyright.” Following the precedent of Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., the court then interpreted the statute’s specification of “any damages” to mean that damages are available, no matter how insubstantial. After requesting more detailed evidence concerning damages, the court found that Hotham and Automattic were entitled to certain types of damages.

First, based on the time he was prevented from spending on freelance articles and his expected compensation for such work, Hotham estimated the value of the time he spent on activities related to the incident, including responding to media inquiries. Hotham also requested additional damages for “lost work” due to the “significant distraction” caused by the media coverage and legal disputes. Hotham claimed a total of $960, and the court found his declaration sufficient to support that claim. But the court denied Hotham’s request for reputational harm as speculative, and rejected Hotham’s request for damages based on emotional distress and “chilled speech,” citing the lack of authority that such damages are available under section 512(f).

Automattic was likewise successful in claiming damages of $1,860, calculated based on employee salaries and a 2,000-hour year, for time spent responding to the takedown notices and related press inquiries. The court denied Automattic’s request for damages attributable to time spent by its outside public relations firm, however, because there was insufficient evidence to show how that time constituted a loss to Automattic.

The court also awarded attorneys’ fees, which are expressly allowed by section 512(f). Based on comprehensive billing records submitted along with data indicating the average local billing rate for IP attorneys, the court granted the request for recovery at a rate or $418.50 per hour, for a total of $22,264 in fees.

The court’s analysis is instructive in multiple ways. First, as mentioned, this was the first case resulting in a damages award under section 512(f), so the opinion is likely to serve as a road map for future courts considering such damages. Potential litigants should not read this case, however, as necessarily indicative of the magnitude of damages available in section 512(f) cases. Exposure can certainly be much greater, as demonstrated in Online Policy Group v. Diebold, Inc., a case that reportedly settled for $125,000. A few factors conspired to make damages in this case minimal (a total of $25,084). Steiner’s takedown notice was obviously fraudulent, so practically no resources were expended in meeting the normally demanding burden of proof. (As other commentators have noted, that same demanding burden of proof is one reason why there are not many section 512(f) cases in the first place.) Other cases may involve more protracted conflict over takedown notices and legal threats. Steiner also never appeared in his defense and therefore defaulted, which likely greatly reduced the time and expense of the lawsuit.

This case also reinforces the most crucial strategic consideration for service providers in responding to a DMCA takedown notice: as Socially Aware has previously explained, no damages can be awarded under section 512(f) unless the notice actually prompts the removal of the accused material. Therefore, if it ultimately wants to resist a takedown notice, a service provider can only recover the expenses of doing so if it actually removes the accused material in the first place.

On the other hand, the court applied the takedown requirement loosely in its actual assessment of damages. Steiner issued three purported DMCA takedown notices, but only the first notice resulted in actual removal of accused content. Even though Hotham and Automattic could have incurred a portion of their expenses due to the final two notices, the court did not discuss whether the takedown requirement precluded any portion of their claimed damages. While this bodes well for the availability of damages in cases involving multiple takedown notices, the analysis has questionable weight on this point. Given the absence of any opposition from defendant, future defendants will have a strong argument that the court simply did not consider this nuance.