The ease of sharing pictures online has made it both lucrative for legitimate artists to monetize their works and simpler for opportunists (“copyright trolls”) to victimize unprepared websites with extortion schemes disguised as legitimate copyright enforcement practices. To escape being targeted by the latter, websites that host user-generated content can utilize the “safe harbor” provisions (Section 512) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) to shield them from copyright infringement committed by users. In return, the DMCA “safe harbor” requires the website to adopt “notice and takedown” procedures allowing the copyright holder a streamlined way to report infringement and have the infringing content taken down.
Copyright holders who send a copyright notice to a website to remove the copyright-infringing material must include certain information to the website. The copyright notice must (i) identify the infringing material, (ii) provide the location of the original material, (iii) include the submitter’s contact information, (iv) state that the notice is entered in good faith, (iv) confirm that all information in the notice is factual, (v) state that the person sending the notice, under penalty of perjury, has the authority to act on behalf of the copyright holder, and (vi) sign the notice. Before sending the notice, the owner must also consider whether the use of the work is protected by fair use.
Copyright trolls abuse the DMCA requirements in search of easy money – big money. Copyright holders with registered U.S. works can seek statutory damages—up to $150,000 per work for willful infringement—for copyright infringement. For U.S. works, the Supreme Court has provided that a copyright owner cannot sue for copyright infringement until they have registered the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. For foreign works, copyright holders may file suit without registration per the Berne Convention (however, foreign works may not be awarded statutory damages or attorneys’ fees unless the foreign work is first registered with the U.S. Copyright Office). While these sometimes substantial damages seem harsh for a website merely hosting content posted by users, full compliance with the “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA can negate liability.
Additionally, the DMCA provides a means to fight back against overly aggressive copyright trolls (albeit through a sparingly used provision). Section 512(f) of the DMCA allows the website owner to file a lawsuit seeking costs and attorneys’ fees against any copyright notice sender who knowingly misrepresents information in a DMCA notice. The caveat is that the website must prove their harm as a result of relying upon the misrepresentation. While Section 512(f) lawsuits are scarce, one hopeful lawsuit on Section 512(f) was filed in August 2019 by YouTube against a copyright troll. Unfortunately, YouTube settled the lawsuit out of court with the copyright troll apologizing for his conduct and admitting to sending dozens of false takedowns. Thus, whether Section 512(f) is an effective means to deter DMCA takedown abuses is not yet a settled issue.
In any case, because of how easy it is for potentially infringing material to end up on a website, copyright trolling will persist. While the settlement fees copyright trolls request might seem reasonable relative to the costs of a potential copyright infringement lawsuit, websites should seek out help to evaluate the claim and strategize the most efficient way to handle the situation.
Written By: Stan Sater and David H. Pierce