DMCA reaches the decade mark

My friend Kevin Thompson over at Cyberlaw Central reminded me this morning in this post that President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ten years ago today. Tempus fugit. It’s interesting to reflect on how this critical piece of legislation has affected (I think fostered) the growth of the online infrastructure with its safe harbor provisions found at 17 U.S.C. 512.

DMCA at 10 years

Simply stated, the DMCA at section 512 gives safe harbor protections to providers of interactive computer services (like ISPs and websites hosting user generated content) from liability when users upload content that infringes on another’s copyright rights. To sail its ship into the safe harbor, the provider has to take certain affirmative steps, like registering an agent with the Copyright Office, terminating the accounts of repeat infringers, and, most importantly, responding appropriately to “takedown notices” sent by copyright owners identifying infringing content on the provider’s system.

Though few could disagree with the principle of protecting service providers from infringement liability occasioned by the conduct of third party users (i.e., stemming from user generated content), the DMCA has its critics. And the actual mechanism has some bugs.

A big factor in the problem is the sheer volume of user generated content that’s put online. How can an operator like YouTube, who gets hours of new content loaded to its servers every minute, reasonably be expected to give meaningful review to every takedown notice that comes its way? It can’t.

So for practical reasons, big providers (and smaller ones alike) take down accused content essentially with a rubber stamp. And who can blame them? It saves administrative time and helps ensure safe harbor protection. But there are negative consequences to users and to the public. These consequences on the First Amendment and other rights are well-exemplified by the recent correspondence between the McCain-Palin campaign and YouTube, with amicus-like voices joining the chorus.

Like any ten-year old, the DMCA shows signs of maturity. It has withstood a decade of scrutiny, all the while giving service providers peace of mind, along with relatively efficient mechanisms for copyright owners to get infringing material taken down quickly. But also like a ten-year-old, the challenging years of adolescence — and the accompanying rudimentary changes — are around the corner. It’ll still be the DMCA, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some transformation going on as user generated content becomes less a novelty and more a standard.

Birthday cake photo courtesy of Flickr user “juverna” via this Creative Commons license.