File-Sharing, YouTube and the DMCA’s chilling effect

With a new round of litigation threats from the Recording Industry of America, there has been a lot of attention, and confusion, about what obligations internet service providers have to respond when notified of allegedly infringing activity. The phrase “take-down notice” is beginning to enter our collective vocabulary, but it is important to understand to which situations it does, or does not, apply.

The take down notice is a product of section 512(c) of the Copyright Act, added by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, and it is applicable only when the allegedly infringing material resides on the servers owned by the internet service provider. There is substantial evidence that these notices are used by content owners to remove critical material from the web even when the claim of copyright infringement is very weak.

A recent, almost comic, contratemps between law professor Wendy Seltzer and the NFL nicely illustrates how take-down notices work. Prof. Seltzer copied and uploaded to YouTube a short section of the Super Bowl broadcast — the part where they read that overly broad copyright warning that says that even “descriptions and accounts” of the game must be authorized by the NFL — in order to illustrate the absurd claims that some copyright owners use to try to frighten people from making legitimate uses of content. The NFL promptly sent a take-down notice to YouTube, which removed the video and notified Professor Seltzer. She responded with the statutory counter-notification that asserted her posting of the video clip was fair use, and YouTube put the video back. Then the whole cycle was repeated again. The clip, restored for the second time on April 4, is still on YouTube as of today, and Prof. Seltzer has certainly made her point about how copyright assertions, and especially the DMCA take-down procedure, can have a chilling effect on legitimate expression. (See Wendy Seltzer’s blog as well as the “Chilling Effect Clearinghouse“).

But when infringing material does not reside on the service providers’ own equipment (as clips in YouTube reside on Google-owned servers), then neither the take-down notice and counter-notice nor the expedited subpoena process apply. Thus, in cases of peer-to-peer file sharing, where the infringing material is only transmitted over the service provider’s network but is not stored or maintained on that network, the 512(c) procedure can not be used.

So what is the RIAA sending to universities regarding file sharing? The recent batch of letters sent to university DMCA agents, who are designated to receive take-down notices, have taken two forms. One is a “settlement offer” that is identified only by an IP address and that asks the institution to pass on to the student associated with that address. When and if the letter is passed on to the correct student, that person is told to go to a specified website and settle the claim for infringement or risk being sued. Since this procedure saves the RIAA the time and trouble of getting a subpoena to learn the identity of each student alleged to be sharing files, it is much more efficient for the RIAA; it puts the institution in the middle instead.

Some schools have responding by saying that they do not retain server logs long enough to match the dynamic IP addresses referenced in these settlement letters to the offending student, so the RIAA has added another letter, demanding that the institutions retain records in anticipation of possible litigation. Whether or not this demand is legally enforcable is a debated issue, but many universities are complying with both letters out of concern not to leave students unaware of their risk of litigation. So now the “chilling effect” that has long been associated with the DMCA is being exploited to save time and increase settlement revenues for the recording industry.

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