Is a DMCA subpoena to identify unknown infringers valid if the infringement has ended?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) is well-known for its notice and takedown provisions. But the DMCA provides a number of other interesting mechanisms, including a procedure for potential copyright plaintiffs to send subpoenas to online service providers to learn the identity of users who posted infringing content to that service. A recent case involving some subpoenas that a copyright owner sent to eBay examines the relationship between the notice and takedown procedures on one hand, and the subpoena mechanism on the other. The question before the court was whether a DMCA subpoena is valid if, by the time it is served on the online service provider, that online service provider has already removed or has disabled access to that content.

Section 512(h) (17 U.S.C. 512(h)) spells out the DMCA subpoena process, and how it relates to the notice and takedown provisions. An online service provider must act expeditiously to identify the user who uploaded infringing content “[u]pon receipt of the issued subpoena, either accompanying or subsequent to the receipt of a [takedown request].” That plain language seems straightforward — an online service provider has to provide the identifying information in response to any subpoena it receives either with or subsequent to a takedown notice.

But it was not so straightforward in a 2011 case, where some confusing facts made for some confusing law. In Maximized Living, Inc., v. Google, Inc., 2011 WL 6749017 (N.D. Cal. December 22, 2011), the copyright holder sent a subpoena to the online service provider after the copyright holder had sent a DMCA takedown notice. That would appear to comport with the statute — the subpoena came subsequent to the takedown notice. But the problem in that case was that the takedown notice was not valid. By the time it was sent, the alleged infringer had already removed the infringing content. From that, the Maximized Living case pronounced that “the subpoena power of §512(h) is limited to currently infringing activity and does not reach former infringing activity that has ceased and thus can no longer be removed or disabled.”

In the recent case of In re DMCA Subpoena to eBay, Inc., eBay, as the recipient of subpoenas to identify some of its users, picked up on the Maximized Living holding to argue that it did not have to answer the subpoenas because it had already taken down the offending content pursuant to previous takedown notices. Since the subpoenas did not relate to “currently infringing activity,” eBay argued à la Maximized Living, that the subpoenas had not been issued under §512(h)’s power and were therefore invalid.

The court rejected eBay’s argument. The key distinction in this case was that, unlike in Maximized Living, the takedown notices in this case, when they issued, related to content that was on the eBay servers at the time the takedown notices were issued. Granted, some of those takedown notices went all the way back to early 2012 (query whether the subpoena should be valid if it would only uncover the identity of an infringer for whom the 3-year copyright statute of limitations had passed; but that wasn’t before the court).

So to simply state the rule in this case — for a DMCA subpoena to be valid, it has to relate to a valid DMCA takedown notice. That DMCA takedown notice is not valid unless it was served at a time when infringing content resided on the service. An online service provider cannot avoid the obligation of responding to a subpoena by taking down the content, thereby causing there to be no “currently infringing activity”. Such a rule would, as the court observed, cause the online service provider’s safe harbor protection to also shield the alleged infringer from being identified. That would indeed be an odd application of the DMCA’s protection. The court in this case avoided that outcome.

In re DMCA Subpoena to eBay, Inc., 2015 WL 3555270 (S.D. Cal. June 5, 2015).

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping clients in matters dealing with copyright, technology, the internet and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases dot com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Galvez under this Creative Commons license.