June 6, 2008

DMCA “Repeat Infringers”: Scientology Critic’s Account Reinstated after Counter-Notification

Filed under: Chilling Effects, DMCA, copyright, law — wseltzer @ 6:56 am

The Scientology critic known as “Wise Beard Man” returned to YouTube this week after successfully filing counter-notifications to copyright claims that had earlier been made against his account. The takedown and delayed return illuminate another of the lesser-known shoals of the DMCA safe harbor, the 512(i)(1)(A) “repeat infringers” consideration.

As Mark Bunker, the critic, describes it, he had initially set up a YouTube account under the name XenuTV, where he posted clips including commentary on Scientology. Some of these clips came from other sources, and two of them attracted DMCA takedown requests from Viacom, for “Colbert Report” clips in which Stephen talked about Scientology. These might well have been fair use, or he might have chosen to remove them, but as Bunker says, “Before I could act on the takedown notices and remove the offending clips, the accounts were canceled.”

Bunker began using a second YouTube account, XenuTV1, posting only clips of entirely his own material. His advice to the “Anonymous” critics made him a sort of elder statesman to the movement, and his account attracted over 10,000 subscribed viewers.

In April, however, this second account was abruptly canceled. Apparently, YouTube had discovered that it was Mr. Bunker’s second, after a canceled first, and interpreted the DMCA to compel termination of this second account.

The provision they were invoking was 512(i)(1)(A), which sets some conditions for service provider eligibility for shelter in the DMCA safe harbor:

“The limitations on liability established by this section shall apply to a service provider only if the service provider—
(A) has adopted and reasonably implemented, and informs subscribers and account holders of the service provider’s system or network of, a policy that provides for the termination in appropriate circumstances of subscribers and account holders of the service provider’s system or network who are repeat infringers”

Now the DMCA does not define “repeat infringers,” and no cases have yet done so, so it’s left to ISPs to determine how to do so. Copyright claimants urge that two takedown notices make someone a “repeat infringer” whose account must be terminated (let’s hope it’s just the account, and not the subscriber himself!). In contrast, noted copyright scholar and attorney David Nimmer suggests that the provision should be construed strictly, to require “repeat infringer” sanctions only against those who have more than once been found liable for copyright infringement after legal proceedings. Nimmer, Repeat Infringers, 52 J. Copyright Soc’y 167 (2005). Nimmer also notes that unless “repeat” is limited to the service at issue, all the major motion picture studios would be ineligible for online posting accounts, since all have had multiple copyright infringement judgments rendered against them.

Nor does the DMCA define “appropriate circumstances” for account termination, so mitigating factors might well be raised against the termination of any particular account. The DMCA pre-condition is open to interpretation.

It appears, however, that YouTube determined that the two Viacom notices (Feb. 2, 2007, and Jan. 15, 2008) levied against Mr. Bunker’s XenuTV account marked him as a “repeat infringer.” Therefore, to maintain safe-harbor eligibility, YouTube felt compelled to terminate the second account, XenuTV1, upon recognizing that it was the same individual. Notwithstanding a complete absence of copyright claims against the XenuTV1 account, YouTube apparently concluded the risks of continuing to host the marked “repeat infringer” were too great.

Notably, 512(i) is a general precondition to the safe-harbor. Failure to “adopt[] and reasonably implement[]” a repeat infringers policy in one instance could be used against a provider as an argument to deny it the benefits of safe-harbor protection in an entirely unrelated case. YouTube’s risk calculation in responding to Mr. Bunker’s accounts, therefore, was not merely whether Viacom would sue over the Colbert clips Mr. Bunker had posted and YouTube removed, but whether entirely different copyright holders, complaining about other accounts’ postings, would invoke a failure to remove Mr. Bunker’s account as non-compliance with the DMCA’s eligibility requirements and seek to hold YouTube liable for other users’ infringements.

Mr. Bunker’s story concludes successfully, however, thanks in part to Viacom’s good sense. YouTube invited Mr. Bunker to file counter-notifications for the Viacom clips, and he did so in mid-May, asserting that the “mistake or misidentification of the material” was in not recognizing its use as fair. Viacom’s acceptance of the counter-notifications allowed YouTube to remove the “infringer” stain from Mr. Bunker’s account. For his part, Mr. Bunker says he was supported in his counter-notifications by the public messages of support and group effort to contact YouTube and Viacom to lay the groundwork, including those of VictoireFlamel and The Masked Analyst, who has a series of videos explaining the DMCA and counter-notification. Bunker reports that Viacom’s attorneys said they “wouldn’t be hard-nosed about fair use clips.”

Ten to 14 days after the counter-notification, therefore, when Viacom did not go to court to press its original copyright infringement claims, YouTube allowed the XenuTV accounts’ reinstatement.

While Mr. Bunker’s story ends happily for fair use, another story this week illustrates the danger of taking DMCA notifications as the mark of “repeat infringement”: University of Washington researchers reported getting DMCA takedowns against their laser printers, allegedly for sharing copies of “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones.” MPAA agents sent DMCA notices without any verification that material was available from the accused IP addresses, much less that the materials infringed copyright. Meanwhile, universities report that they get DMCA takedowns alleging infringement by “shared folders” even when filters such Audible Magic make sharing impossible by blocking any transmission of files.

If the DMCA as a whole is to have any coherence, providers shouldn’t lose DMCA protection or subscribers lose their hosting based on such flimsy allegations.

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