Dangerous Copyright Office Proposal to Undercut the DMCA Online Safe Harbors

By Eric Goldman

In light of SOPA and its capacity to destroy the current online safe harbor scheme, it seems almost quaint to keep worrying about 17 USC 512. However, unless SOPA/PROTECT-IP passes, 512 remains an essential part of the UGC economy, and it’s worth fighting to preserve the safe harbor’s integrity and all of the social benefits that have flowed from it.

Recently, the Copyright Office floated a proposal that would result in websites completely losing the 512 safe harbors due to administrative technicalities. Specifically, the Copyright Office proposes to force all websites that currently have properly designated an agent for notice to re-register or they will automatically forfeit the safe harbor; then, the Copyright Office proposes to require all websites to take affirmative action to confirm their designation every two years or they will automatically forfeit the safe harbor.

Unquestionably, the proposal’s net effect will be that well-meaning legitimate websites will lose their safe harbor protection due to unintentional or garden-variety clerical/administrative errors. Further, there is almost no countervailing benefit to copyright owners or the Copyright Office from the additional administrative requirements.[**] Indeed, the Copyright Office proposal inevitably will increase the litigation costs for both copyright owners and UGC websites as it gives them yet another thing to litigate over–as if 512 opinions weren’t long enough already.

[**: Perhaps I’ve overstated things. In fact, the proposal may offer indirect benefits to both copyright owners and the Copyright Office. First, copyright owners might be happy that more UGC websites become easy targets for their lawsuits. Second, I wonder if the Copyright Office plans to use filing fees to extract more profits from UGC websites, something they didn’t expressly say but I have my suspicions].

Working with Corynne McSherry of the EFF and Jason Schultz from UC Berkeley, today we filed comments to the Copyright Office proposal encouraging them to scrap this part of the proposal. Our comments are just 3 pages long, so take a look. The initial comment due date is today; reply comments are due Dec. 27.