George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

Despite What You Hear, Notice and Takedown is Failing Creators and Copyright Owners

cameraIn a recent op-ed in the LA Times, Professors Chris Sprigman and Mark Lemley praise the notice and takedown provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as “a bit of copyright law worth saving.” They argue that Section 512 of the DMCA continues to serve its purpose of balancing the rights of copyright owners and creators with those of Internet service providers (ISPs), while leaving both sides only “slightly disappointed.” Satisfying these two groups is indeed a difficult charge, but it’s simply disingenuous to suggest that creators and copyright owners are satisfied with a system so clearly in need of an overhaul.

As the Copyright Office embarks on its review of the DMCA, supporters and critics of the nearly twenty-year-old doctrine are weighing in on its effectiveness in addressing online infringement. Sprigman and Lemley claim that the “process has worked well for years,” and that the result of shifting more enforcement burden to ISPs “could be a broken Internet.” But for those creators and copyright owners who have their works resurface online just minutes after they are taken down, the Internet is already “broken.” The fact that piracy continues to intensify, despite incredible efforts to have infringing content taken down, shows that notice and takedown is largely ineffective.

As CPIP Senior Scholar Sean O’Connor testified before Congress, the notice and takedown system is not working for any of its intended beneficiaries. The constant game of whack-a-mole renders the system essentially futile for copyright owners and creators, and it creates significant burdens for ISPs that want to comply—especially small to mid-level companies that can’t afford compliance staff. Worse still, by shielding service providers from liability, the DMCA creates perverse incentives where there’s little downside to ignoring infringing content. In fact, reviewing content could lead to an ISP having knowledge of infringement and losing its safe harbor.

Now that the Copyright Office’s review is underway, it’s somewhat strange to see some supporters claim that all is well. But has anything actually changed since the Office announced its study?  Of course not. The whack-a-mole problem remains, and the knowledge standards are still interpreted broadly to disproportionately favor ISPs. When one side says the system is working and the other side says it’s broken, the truth is that the system is not working well for everyone. Sprigman and Lemley can claim that the DMCA is “worth saving” only by downplaying the true plight of creators and copyright owners.

A concrete example of this struggle comes from the comments filed by Universal Music Group (UMG) as part of the Copyright Office’s study. UMG describes the painstaking efforts devoted to protect just one artist’s creative work. In October of 2014, UMG and Big Machine Records launched a joint offensive to protect Taylor Swift’s “1989.” A staff of UMG employees dedicated 100% of their time and resources to manually search for infringements on YouTube, SoundCloud, and Tumblr, and through March of 2016, they had sent over 66,000 DMCA takedown notices. Despite their considerable efforts, over 500,000 links to the album were identified, and “1989” was illegally downloaded nearly 1.4 million times from torrent sites.

Of course, this type of effort would be impossible to replicate for any works other than those that attract such massive attention. For most artists, the burden of monitoring the Internet and sending takedown notices would fall entirely on their shoulders, with no guarantee of putting a stop to the theft of their works. Sprigman and Lemley ignore these problems, instead claiming that since copyright owners sent “more than 500 million takedown requests just to Google last year,” we know that the “system is a powerful tool against pirated content.” That would be great, if true, but the reality is that those notices barely made a dent.

Sprigman and Lemley claim that the “genius of the DMCA” is that it “enables entertainment companies to turn piracy into legitimate revenue.” They give the example of “YouTube’s Content ID system,” which “gives copyright owners the opportunity to ‘claim’ their work and share in any advertising revenue rather than pull it off the site.” From the perspective of creators and copyright owners, the only “genius” of this system is that YouTube can legally present them with an unfair choice—suffer infringement and get nothing or monetize and get next to nothing.

While Sprigman and Lemley praise the “more than $1 billion” paid out by YouTube, the real question is how much more copyright owners and creators would have been paid in a properly functioning market. YouTube is consistently teeming with infringing videos—one recent report revealed that over 180 million infringing videos had been removed in 2014 alone. And the artists that YouTube’s largess supposedly benefits are loudly complaining about their exploitation. If Content ID is so great, why are so many creators and copyright owners upset with the arrangement? The monetization Google offers to copyright owners and artists is less than half of the royalties paid out by streaming services like Pandora, an amount that artists have denounced as already inequitable.

In her excellent piece on the fictions of the Content ID system, Grammy-winning artist Maria Schneider exposes Content ID as a way for Google to cash in by actually legitimizing and perpetuating piracy. She explains that a majority of creators that opt for monetization realize miserable percentages of ad revenue, and the continued illegal uploading of their music and content drives billions of users to YouTube’s platform. YouTube has turned the weakness of the DMCA into a system that exploits artists while offering embarrassingly lower royalty rates than what would be negotiated in a free market.

The current situation is untenable, and if change means “breaking” the Internet, then we should pull out the pickaxes and get to work. A system of notice and staydown, rather than just takedown, would help alleviate the constant and seemingly ineffectual vigilance required by the current system. By removing all copies of a protected work and blocking inevitable re-postings, ISPs would honor the original purpose of the DMCA while actually doing their part to earn the protection of the safe harbor provisions. Only by ensuring that targeted works do not resurface will ISPs respect the rights of those without whose content they would cease to exist.

How anyone can honestly say that the current notice and takedown system is working for copyright owners and creators is mystifying given the constant calls for reform from creators and the numerous critical comments filed with the Copyright Office. The incredible magnitude of takedown notices sent and the seemingly unstoppable reappearance of infringing works online are a clear signal that the system is completely failing those it was meant to protect. Creators and copyright owners deserve a better chance at protecting the fruits of their labors, and the DMCA needs to be changed so that it truly is a system “worth saving.”