17 April, 2015

Stifled Words - The DMCA and Censoring Free Speech

Since its enactment at the cusp of the 21st century, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the United States has been the subject of discussion within the IP community, practitioners and even the public in general. With its inception being in the early days of the internet, back when our full understanding of the scale and complexity it will achieve later in its life was all but naught, the provisions in the DMCA can be seen as being quite broad and outdated in their application to the Internet as we know it today. The Electronic Frontier Foundation published a white paper some 2 years ago, detailing very thoroughly the potential abuse of the DMCA and its provisions, and this writer can agree that the DMCA has its issues and needs to be addressed by the US legislature. That being said, a lot of laws have their negative applications (some IP related discussion can be found here and here), but could the DMCA be used to stifle free speech, even abroad?

For the uninitiated, under the DMCA a noticed can be issued to a service provider to request the taking down of copyright infringing works on that provider's services, for example, on a website, under 17 USC section 512. After a sufficient amount of information is provided, the content has to be taken down, should the material alleged actually be infringed as described. While the provision purely affects intellectual property rights, there have been instances where the takedown notice has been abused, and more often than not, service providers will comply with the request just to cover their own backs.

Discussions can be odd at times (Source: HiJinks Ensue)
A recent instance, as discussed above, prompted this writer to look into a matter where the DMCA was clearly used for more nefarious purposes, and not to protect legitimate interests in one's intellectual property. The case in question was Automattic Inc and Oliver Hotham v Nick Steiner, for which summary judgment was passed early last month (PDF copy can be downloaded here), regarded a young journalist called Oliver Hotham. Mr. Hotham, in his journalistic endeavors, contacted an organization called Straight Pride UK, one which advocates their notion of current discrimination of heterosexual people in the light of emerging gay rights. In his email communication to Straight Pride UK Mr. Hotham identified himself as a 'freelance journalist' and asked the organization some questions relating to them and their agenda. They promptly answered a week later, attaching a document titled "Press Release", in which they detailed their answers to most of Mr. Hotham's questions. He subsequently cleaned up the answers, rearranged them and published them in his blog article "It's great to be straight... yeah" (quoted in full here), which garnered a great deal of traction. Due to the article painting Straight Pride UK in a less beneficial light, they threatened to, and did, issue a takedown notice under the DMCA if the article wasn't take off Mr. Hotham's blog. Wordpress did, however, take down the article, yet after some voicing out on Mr. Hotham's part as to his ordeal, Wordpress took action and sued Straight Pride UK (through their representative, Nick Steiner) for abuse of the DMCA.

Under section 512(f) a claim can be brought against a false DMCA notice that has been issued through materially misrepresenting that the activity in question infringes their rights, i.e. that you claim someone's post on a website infringes your copyright when it (potentially at least) doesn't. Wordpress asserted that, as Mr. Steiner represented that "[the] [u]ser http://oliverhotham.wordpress.com did not have my permission to reproduce this content, on Wordpress.com or twitter account or tweets, no mention of material being published was made in communications... [and that] [i]t is of good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of here is not authorized by me, the copyright holder, or the law". As Mr. Hotham had identified himself as a journalist, and the work sent had been titled as a press release, clearly Mr. Hotham did not infringe copyright in the US, or hypothetically even in the UK had the case been brought forth here. Wordpress firmly contested Mr. Steiner's assertion and the court agreed with their argument, issuing a summary judgment in their favor.

Although the case discussed nothing in terms of substantive arguments relating to section 512(f), it highlights an important issue regarding the potential abuse of DMCA when it comes to freedom of expression, and not only limiting it to the US (as the case was here, and wholly related to two UK entities and a US service provider). Had Mr. Hotham not been a journalist (says the writer, writing his own 'journalistic' blog) the nature of the case could have been very different. The DMCA, or any provisions regarding copyright, should protect legitimate interests, and not merely those aiming to stifle criticism or dissent in the veil of protecting copyright. However, as was stated by Paul Sieminski, Chief Legal Counsel for Automattic: "...[this] DMCA abuse may go unpunished this time. But, we're heartened that our case makes some good new law for future cases. There's very little case law in this area, and previously no case law about what damages were available if a plaintiff were to win". Arguably this is very true, and serves as an important milestone in the protection of free speech under the DMCA.

Source: The Guardian

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