Freedom of Speech and the DMCA: Abuse of the Notification and Takedown Process

Last month, my first academic journal article was published by the leading international publication on IP law: the European Intellectual Property Review from Thomson Reuters.

From the abstract:

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “notice and takedown” process is increasingly referred to as a model solution for content removal mechanisms worldwide. While it has emerged as a process capable of producing relatively consistent results, it also has significant problems—and is left open to different kinds of abuse. It is important to recognise these issues in order to ensure that they are not repeated in future legislation.

To that end, this article examines the DMCA with reference to its historical context, and the general issues surrounding the enforcement of copyright infringement claims. It then goes on to discuss the notice and takedown process in detail—along with its advantages, disadvantages, criticisms and praise. Specific examples of the kinds of abuse reported by online service providers are outlined, along with explanations of the statutory construction that allows these situations to continue. To finish, the viability of potential alternatives and proposed changes are discussed.

The article itself is available on WestLaw, citation: E.I.P.R. 2019, 41(2) at 70However, you can also get a copy of the PDF below.

Freedom of Speech and the DMCA: Abuse of the Notification and Takedown Process (PDF)

This material was first published by Thomson Reuters, trading as Sweet & Maxwell, 5 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5AQ, in European Intellectual Property Review as ‘Freedom of speech and the DMCA: abuse of the notification and takedown process’.
E.I.P.R. 2019, 41(2) at 70 and is reproduced by agreement with the publishers. This download is provided free for non-commercial use only. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited.

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Blow Struck by WordPress.com Against Fraudulent DMCAs

Abuse of the American online copyright takedown system (DMCA) is rife. People frequently submit fraudulent notifications to online service providers in order to censor views that they disagree with, curbing legitimate freedom of expression. Examples include those trying to stifle negative reviews about their businesses or products, preventing political satire, and even inappropriately targetting the normative use of a trademark.

All too often, OSPs simply shrug their shoulders when confronted with these scenarios, and process the notices anyway in order to avoid losing their safe harbor protections. Even when alerted to what’s going on in specific circumstances, many choose a policy of non-intervention, rather than to defend their users.

The result of one of two cases which were filed by Automattic in response to fraudulent takedown notifications submitted concerning material posted by WordPress.com was released a few days ago, Westlaw citation: 2014 WL 7894441. The judgement concerned a notice sent by a group called ‘Straight Pride UK’, who objected to the publication of an e-mail interview which a journalist Oliver Hotham had conducted. Under §512(f) of the DMCA, Automattic were awarded a total of just over $25,000 in damages – $960 of which was for Hotham’s time.

The outcome was a ‘default judgement’, as the defendant’s (unsurprisingly) didn’t turn up to the hearing, despite being served properly through the standard international processes. It’s unlikely that either Automattic or Hotham will ever see any of the money, so it is largely a symbolic victory. However, it should not be dismissed too quickly, as the case highlights a number of important issues:

  • The DMCA is frequently abused, with few consequences for those who misrepresent their copyrights
  • Taking action against this abuse is expensive, and happens extremely infrequently
  • Enforcing damages against those from outside the US is difficult, and so there is a hole in the remedies available where those who abuse the system fall into this category
  • Even where organisations or individuals are resident in the US, major online service providers do nothing about the fraudulent notices they receive that could be actionable
  • In order for damages to be awarded, material must be removed as the result of a misrepresentation. There are no consequences for fraudulent notifications that are caught by diligent service providers first – at their own risk

The DMCA is a blunt tool that has an incredible power to silence dissenting voices without recourse. The only way in which this is going to change is if service providers begin to stand up against the abuses, using the considerable resources as their disposal – both to further the conversations in this area, and also to take legal action where possible.

Transparency: I am a Community Guardian for WordPress.com.