In this election season, we hear a lot of complaints about laws stifling business innovation. And there is no doubt that some laws have this effect.
But what about laws that spur innovation, that result in the creation of revolutionary new business models?
Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the DMCA) is one such law. Passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, Section 512(c) has played an enormous role in the success of YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms that host user-generated content, by shielding such platforms from monetary damages from copyright infringement claims in connection with such content.
Absent this safe harbor, it is difficult to imagine a company like YouTube thriving as a business. For example, in 2014 alone, YouTube removed over 180 million videos from its platform due to “policy violations,” the vast majority of which likely stemmed from alleged copyright infringement; yet, absent the Section 512(c) safe harbor, YouTube could have been exposed to staggering monetary damages in connection with those videos.
The DMCA’s protection from liability is expansive, but it is not automatic. To qualify, online service providers must affirmatively comply with a number of requirements imposed by the law. While most of those requirements may seem straightforward, a recent case in the Southern District of New York illustrates how even seemingly routine paperwork can pose problems for websites that host user-generated content.
For companies seeking protection under the DMCA, the typical starting point is designating an agent to receive “takedown” notices from copyright owners. If a company is sued for copyright infringement relating to its website, that company will want to show that it has designated a DMCA agent. But what if the designation paperwork was handled by another entity within the defendant’s organizational structure, such as a corporate parent? That was the situation faced by one of the defendants in BWP Media USA Inc., et al. v. Hollywood Fan Sites LLC, et al. (S.D.N.Y. 2015)—and the court held that the defendant was out of luck.
Although the defendant’s corporate parent had filed a registration form with the U.S. Copyright Office under the parent’s name, nothing on the form mentioned the defendant or made any general reference to affiliates. Under those circumstances, the court concluded that the defendant was ineligible for the safe harbor because it had “no presence at all” in the Copyright Office’s directory of DMCA agents. The court reasoned that those searching the Copyright Office directory should not be “expected to have independent knowledge of the corporate structure of a particular service provider.”
Despite lacking a Copyright Office registration, the defendant argued that it did actually post the agent’s information on its own website, and that one of the plaintiffs had successfully used such information to send a takedown notice resulting in removal of the allegedly infringing material. The court found those assertions “irrelevant,” because they did nothing to address the Copyright Office registration requirement. As the court noted, the DMCA requires each service provider to post the agent’s name and contact information on the provider’s website, and submit such information to the Copyright Office.
Would the defendant’s DMCA eligibility have turned out differently if the parent had included the affiliate’s name on the form, or at least made a general reference to the existence of affiliates? The court’s opinion leaves those questions unaddressed, but the preamble to the Copyright Office regulations—cited in passing by the court—appears to reject such an approach. According to the preamble, each designation “may be filed only on behalf of a single service provider[, and] related companies (e.g., parents and subsidiaries) are considered separate service providers who would file separate [designations].”
Following the Hollywood Fan Sites decision, we expect that many companies that host user-generated content will be checking to make sure that all of their legal names are indeed listed in the Copyright Office directory—and, in light of the Copyright Office’s position on this subject, many such companies may also decide to file separate designations for each legal entity within a corporate family. While this process may be cumbersome, it seems a small price to pay for the generous safe harbor benefits offered by the DMCA, especially for companies with business models that depend on user-generated content.