Two recent decisions have provided context for the DMCA's "safe harbor" provisions and have given an expansive reading to such provisions.
In the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the decision in a case called UMG v. Veoh (even though there are dozens of parties) has affirmed a district court's decision that a video sharing site (Veoh) qualified for the safe harbor provisions and therefore was not liable for copyright infringement. This case was decided on December 20, 2011.
In the Southern District of New York, summary judgment was entered for Photobucket.com and the Kodak Imaging Network against Sheila Wolk, an artist that claimed that Photobucket was liable because several of her works had appeared on Photobucket. For example, see here for examples on the day this post was written. The case is styled Wolk v. Photobucket and was decided on December 21, 2011.
In UMG v. Veoh, Veoh allows people to share video content over the internet. The service is free and Veoh makes its money through related advertising.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA") allows "service providers" "safe harbor protection" if the service provider: (i) does not have actual knowledge that the material on the system is infringing; (ii) is not aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activities are apparent; (iii) upon obtaining actual knowledge acts expeditiously to remove or disable access to such infringing material; or (iv) does not receive a financial benefit in cases where the service provider has the right and ability to control such activity.
Veoh employed the standard methods of having its customers agree not to upload any infringing material and the customers give Veoh a license to use and display such material. When a video is uploaded, the software resident at Veoh's site automatically (i.e. without human intervention), breaks the video into 256 kilobytes chunks that facilitates streaming and converts the video into Flash 7 format. If the customer is a "Pro" user, the software further converts the files to Flash 8 and MPEG-4 formats. The software also extracts metadata to aid in the search function for the videos. No Veoh employees review videos before they are posted.
However, Veoh uses “hash filtering” software. When Veoh is aware of an infringing video and disables access to it, the hash filtering software automatically disables access to any identical video and prohibits any subsequently submitted duplicates. Veoh also used another filtering system that compares audio on a video to a database of copyright content and if it finds a match, the video never becomes available for viewing. After obtaining this software, Veoh applied it to their catalog of previously uploaded videos and as a result, removed more than 60,000 videos, including some that supposedly infringed on UMG’s copyrights. Despite the precautions, UMG and Veoh agree that some UMG copyrighted material is on Veoh’s site. The parties also agree that UMG never gave Veoh notice of any infringing material before UMG filed this suit.
Veoh asserted as an affirmative defense that it was entitled to protection under the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA. UMG alleged that Veoh was not entitled to such safe harbor because its activities were not “infringement of copyright by reason of the storage [of material] at the direction of a user”, that Veoh had actual knowledge of infringing acts or was “aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity [wa]s apparent and that Veoh “receive[d] a financial benefit directly attributable to …infringing activity” that it had the right and ability to control.
The court disagreed with UMG on all three issues.
UMG had asserted that the language required that the infringing conduct be limited to storage and that Veoh’s facilitation of access to the material went beyond “storage”. The court said the statute language was “by reason of storage” and that the language was clearly designed to cover more than “mere electronic storage lockers”. The court reasoned that if Congress had intended the safe harbor to extend only to web hosts, it would not have included the language “by reason of storage”.
The court followed a line of other cases that said that just because a defendant had been notified of some infringing activities that this put it on notice for other infringing activities. It was undisputed that Veoh removed all material for which it was put on notice and that it could identify from such notices, even though UMG had not provided any such notices.
The court further stated that the “right and ability to control” requires control over specific infringing activity that the provider knows about. “A service provider’s general right and ability to remove materials from its services is, alone, insufficient. Of course, a service provider cannot willfully bury its head in the sand to avoid obtaining such specific knowledge.” The court found that Veoh had not acted in such manner.
In the Wolk v. Photobucket case, Ms. Wolk is an artist that depends on her paintings and sculptures as her sole source of income. She alleges that Photobucket facilitates the infringing of her copyrights and is not entitled to the protections of the safe harbor.
In its analysis, the court found that Photobucket met the definition of a service provider because the court believed that the definition of service provider includes a “broad set of Internet activities”. Photobucket also had a policy that allowed copyright holders to submit a takedown notice, had made that policy available on its website and had acted to remove infringing material when given notice. It also found that Photobucket met the other requirements for safe harbor and dismissed Ms. Wolk’s pro se complaint.
Both of these cases allowed immunity from activities that go substantially beyond the mere storage of materials. Decisions of this type, which most likely accurately apply the legislative intent of the DMCA, would probably come down differently under the recently proposed SOPA legislation.
This will not be the last we’ve heard of these issues.