We wrote about the Department of Commerce’s Green Paper on Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy that was released back in July. While our article principally addressed the music issues raised by the Green Paper, many other issues were discussed in its 120 pages. The questions raised by the Aereo case (about which we wrote here, and we wrote about the similar service, FilmOnX, here) were also discussed in the paper. Many other issues were also addressed, and the Commerce Department, through NTIA (the office within Commerce that advises the Executive Branch of the government on Telecommunications issues) and the Patent and Trademark Office, is now beginning the process of asking for public comment on some of the many issues raised in the Green Paper. The NTIA released a Public Notice, dated September 30 and still available on the NTIA website despite the Federal government shutdown, asking for comment on a number of these issues. 

The specific issues on which comments are sought (with our explanation of some of the issues involved) are the following:

  • "the legal framework for the creation of remixes" – the only music issue specifically teed up for comment.  The Green Paper had asked if consideration should be given to some sort of compulsory license for remixes, mash-ups and similar uses of music, or if other steps could or should be taken to allow for the creation of such works;
  • "the relevance and scope of the first sale doctrine in the digital environment." This is asking for comments on questions including whether consumers should be able to re-sell downloads that they purchase, as they have the right to do in a physical world;
  • "the appropriate calibration of statutory damages in the contexts of individual file sharers and of secondary liability for large-scale infringement."   This question seemingly stems from the issue raised by the huge statutory damage requests in mass-infringement cases, damages that in one case alone could exceed the entire revenue of many industries whose works are infringed. Questions have been raised as to whether the full amount of statutory damages should be available for each and every infringement, particularly where such infringement is done on a limited basis.  Obviously, though, copyright holders are concerned about large scale infringement, and want to preserve and even expand penalties in such cases;
  • "whether and how the government can facilitate the further development of a robust online licensing environment." It is unclear exactly what this question is looking at. Perhaps it is seeking comments on ideas such as the one the that government create some sort of copyright hub that would facilitate the identification of copyright holders and the licensing of their works; and
  • "establishing a multistakeholder dialogue on improving the operation of the notice and takedown system for removing infringing content from the Internet under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)." Next to the question on damages, this issue is likely to be among the most controversial of the proposals, and we’ll address that below in a little more detail below.

The reform of the DMCA notice and takedown system is looking to reform the current system where operators of websites generally have immunity from liability for copyright infringement for user generated content – unless the sites knew specifically about the infringing content and did not take steps to take it down, or unless they actively solicited or encouraged such uses. This is often referred to as the "safe harbor" for sites that feature user-generated content.  The safe harbor has allowed many of today’s most popular services, including YouTube and even Facebook to thrive, allowing millions of consumers to have an outlet for their interests through social sharing, without the sites having to review each and every post to determine if there is infringing content in the material that users have shared. We have written about this safe harbor before (see, for instance, our posts here and here).


Continue Reading Comments Sought on Commerce Department Green Paper on Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy – Including Issues of User Generated Content and Appropriate Damages for Copyright Infringement

This week, the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee issued a press release stating that he intends that the Committee do a thorough reexamination of the Copyright Act, noting that new technologies stemming from digital media have upset many settled expectations in Copyright Law, and confused many issues. That this release was issued in the same week as a decision of New York’s Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, on the obscure issue of pre-1972 sound recordings is perhaps appropriate, as this decision demonstrates how an obscure provision of the copyright act can have a fundamental effect on the functioning of many online media outlets – including essentially any outlet that allows user-generated content with audio. The Court’s ruling, which conflicts with a Federal Court’s decision on the same question, would essentially remove the safe harbor protection for sites that allow for the posting of user generated content – where that content contains any pre-1972 sound recordings which don’t fall within the protections of the Copyright Act. Let’s explore this decision and its ramifications in a little more depth.

As we have written before, an Internet service that allows users to post content to that service is exempt from any liability for that content under two statutes. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act insulates the service from any claims of copyright infringement contained in any of the user generated content, if the service has met several standards. These standards include the obligations for the service to take down the infringing material if given proper notice from the copyright holder. The Service cannot encourage the infringement or profit directly from the infringement itself, and it must register a contact person with the Copyright Office so that the copyright owner knows who to contact to provide the notice of the takedown. While the exact meaning of some of these provisions is subject to some debate (including debate in recent cases, including one that Viacom has been prosecuting against YouTube that we may address in a subsequent post), the general concept is well-established.


Continue Reading How a NY State Court Decision on Pre-1972 Sound Recordings Clouds the Safe Harbor Protections of Websites Featuring User Generated Content

Do you allow the posting of content created by third parties on your website (e.g. videos, audio files, or even written comments)?  Do you run any on-line service where you collect information provided by third parties (whether that be a dating service, auction site or other classified service)?  If you do, you probably know that you are safe from copyright claims for infringing content that is posted by those who are not your employees or agents if you follow certain steps.  We have written about these steps to give you the "safe harbor" from copyright liability for "user-generated content" before.  The steps include requirements that you not encourage or profit from the infringing content, that you have terms of use for your service that forbid users from posting infringing content, and that you take down infringing content when you receive notice from copyright holders that it has been uploaded to your site or service by a third party.  To take advantage of this safe harbor from liability, services are required to register with the Copyright Office the name of someone in their company who can be served with "take-down notices" from copyright owners.  The process of registration is now proposed to be changed in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking just issued by the Copyright Office.  Comments on this notice can be filed through November 28. Replies are due by December 27.

The safe harbor was created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, adopted in 1998.  Since that time, the registration of agents to receive take-down notices has been governed by interim rules.  Services register by sending a paper form and a filing fee to the Copyright Office, and that information is manually entered by the Copyright Office into a list that is available on the Copyright Office website.  From experience, the time from the filing of such a registration to its appearance on the Copyright Office’s website can take several weeks or more.  The Copyright Office, in its Notice, states that it has done some informal checks on the information in its database of registered agents, and found that the list contains duplicate registrations, registrations for companies or sites that are no longer in operation (services are supposed to tell the Office when they stop their operations), and many outdated addresses (services are supposed to update their agents as employees change, but apparently they sometimes forget).  The NPRM proposes to move to an electronic registration system, which will automatically request a verification of the registered information on a regular basis.  In making this proposal, the Copyright Office asks for public comment on a number of issues.


Continue Reading Claiming Safe Harbor Protection for User Generated Content – Copyright Office Proposes Changes to Registration of Agent for Service of Take Down Notices

Dave Oxenford this week conducted a seminar on legal issues facing broadcasters in their digital media efforts.  The seminar was organized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, and originated before a group of broadcasters in Lansing, but was webcast live to broadcasters in ten other states.  Dave addressed a variety of legal issues for broadcasters in connection with their website operations and other digital media platforms.  These issues included a discussion of service marks and copyrights, employment matters, music on websites, the use of social media, privacy, and sponsorship disclosure.  The slides used in the Lansing presentation are available here.    During the seminar, Dave also mentioned that stations with websites featuring user-generated content, to help insulate themselves from copyright infringement that might occur in the content posted to their website by their audience, should take advantage of the registration with the Copyright Office that may provide safe harbor protection if a station follows the rules and takes down offending content when identified by a copyright holder.  The Copyright Office instructions for registration can be found here.   

One of the most common issues that arise with radio station websites is the streaming of their programming.  In August, Dave gave a presentation to the Texas Association of Broadcasters providing  a step-by-step guide to streaming issues, with a summary of the royalty rates paid by different types of streaming companies.  That summary to Internet Radio issues is available here.  Additional information about use of music on the Internet can be found in Davis Wright Tremaine’s Guide to The Basics of Music Licensing in a Digital Age.   Dave also presented this seminar at the Connecticut Broadcasters Association’s Annual Convention in Hartford on October 14.


Continue Reading David Oxenford Conducts Webinar for State Broadcast Associations on Legal Issues in the Digital Media World – Including a Discussion of Ephemeral Copies of Sound Recordings

Last week, the Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force asked for comments on the relationship between the protection of copyrighted content on the Internet and the effect of such protections on technology innovation and the expectations of consumers.  The purpose of the inquiry is to develop a report to be circulated among the various government departments that have power over the enforcement of copyrights and the development of rules and regulations that deal with copyrighted materials – to essentially develop government policy in this area.  While the request for comments dwell on the concerns about copyright infringement that are raised by many Internet applications, the proceeding will obviously be controversial among media companies.  Many of these companies are concerned about the unauthorized use of their content on various websites, while other media companies (or divisions of the same media companies who are concerned about the unauthorized use of content) are concerned about too tight restrictions on the use of copyrighted content and how that will impact various websites, especially those that feature user-generated content.

As we have written before, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows Internet companies to allow users to post material on their websites, without fear of liability, if they take certain precautions – including adopting terms of use warning users that they need to observe the intellectual property rights of others, not otherwise encouraging infringing uses, registering with the Copyright Office to provide a contact person at the website operator that a copyright owner can contact if they believe that their content is being used improperly, and taking steps to take down improper content if the website operator is notified of the infringing use.    This Commerce Department’s notice asks if this "safe harbor" provision has served the public interest, or if adjustments to this regime should be made.  Obviously, many websites that have grown businesses based on user generated content (e.g. many of the social networking and video-sharing sites) and will be very concerned with a proposal to alter their safe harbor and require them to take on a greater burden of reviewing content for potential copyright violations, while many content owners, who have complained about the inability to monitor all of these sites, may be looking for these reforms.   Obviously, there will be conflicting views on these proposals.


Continue Reading Department of Commerce Seeks Comments on The Relationship of Protecting Copyrighted Content and Innovation in the Internet Economy

Website operators who allow the posting of user-generated content on their sites enjoy broad immunity from legal liability.  This includes immunity from copyright violations if the site owner registers with the Copyright Office, does not encourage the copyright violations and takes down infringing content upon receiving notice from a copyright owner (see our post here for more information).  There is also broad immunity from liability for other legal violations that may occur within user-generated content.  In a recent case, involving the website Roommates.com, the US Court of Appeals determined that the immunity is broad, but not unlimited if the site is set up so as to elicit the improper conduct.  A memo from attorneys in various Davis Wright Tremaine offices, which can be found here, provides details of the Roommates.com case and its implications.

In the case, suit was filed against the company, alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act, as the site had pull-down menus which allowed users to identify their sex, sexual orientation, and whether or not they had children.  Including any of this information in a housing advertisement can lead to liability under the law.  The Court found that, if this information had been volunteered by users acting on their own, the site owner would have no liability.  But because the site had the drop-down menus that prompted the answers that were prohibited under the law, liability was found.


Continue Reading Court Affirms Website Owner’s Insulation from Liability for User-Generated Content – If the Website Does Not Contribute to the Liability