By Cathy Gellis
The DMCA is a weird law. It’s comprised of two almost completely unrelated provisions: Section 512, with its platform safe harbors, and Section 1201, which forbids circumventing technological measures. Both parts are full of problems, but to the extent that the DMCA provides platforms with liability protection via the safe harbors, it is also a critically important law. We are therefore fans of the DMCA because of this platform protection it provides, but it’s like being fans of a terrible actor who had one absolutely fantastic performance in a classic movie we can’t stop loving, even though the rest of his work is unwatchable dreck. In other words, we can’t pretend the law is without its appeal, but we nevertheless fervently wish it were a whole lot better since we’re stuck having to deal with the rest of it.
Which brings us to Senator Tillis, who has expressed interest in reforming the DMCA and already started to lay the groundwork. We dread where this reform effort might go, because we know (see the Copyright Office’s 512 study) that many people are championing for the things already terrible about it to be made worse. But at the same time it would be great to fix the terrible things already there so that it could actually become an unequivocally good law that does what copyright law is supposed to do: stimulate expression and promote the spreading of knowledge.
Last month Senator Tillis put out a call for stakeholder input on the reforms he is thinking about, and earlier this week the Copia Institute submitted its response. Instead of answering his specific questions, which all seemed to presume way too much about what allegedly needs fixing in the DMCA, and not necessarily correctly, we made two larger points that need to apply to any reform measures: (1) There needs to be a clear, data-supported understanding of what needs to be fixed and why so that any implemented change actually helps, rather than hurts, creators, and (2) the statute must scrupulously comply with the First Amendment, which unfortunately it currently falls way too short of in way too many ways.
On the latter front we made several points. First, for the DMCA to be First Amendment-compliant, fair use cannot continue to be treated as an afterthought. It is not a minor technicality; it is a fundamental limit on the reach of a copyright and therefore needs to limit the power of what a copyright holder can do to advance that right. Thus, as we wrote in our submission, Section 1201 should no longer obstruct a fair use, and Section 512 should no longer enable the censoring of a fair use either. Protecting fair uses must be a central tenet of any DMCA revision in order to ensure that fair use can remain meaningful in the digital age.
There are also a number of problems that have emerged over the years in the way the Section 512 system operates that have turned it into an impermissible system of prior restraint. Platform protection is hugely critical for fostering online expression, but the irony is that this protection comes at the expense of the very expression it is supposed to foster. The basic problem is that, unlike Section 230, the platform protection the DMCA provides is conditional. But the even bigger problem is that the protection is conditioned on platforms acting against speakers and speech based only on allegations of infringement, even though those allegations may be unfounded. When a law causes speech to be sanctioned before a court has ever adjudicated it to be wrongful it is prior restraint and anathema to the First Amendment. But current judicial interpretations of the DMCA have made Section 512’s critical platform protection on just this sort of thing, with dire consequences to speakers and their speech. Reform is therefore needed so that platform protection is no longer contingent on this sort of constitutional violation.
Similarly, we noted that Section 512 also undermines the First Amendment right to anonymous speech, given the operation of Section 512(g) (governing counter-notices) and Section 512(h) (establishing a special type of federal subpoena). But an even more significant constitutional defect with the DMCA overall is with Section 1201. As we’ve talked about before, Section 1201, and its prohibition against circumventing technical measures, chills security research and innovation and forecloses fair uses. None of these things are constitutionally permissible, and all undermine the overall goal of promoting progress.
Which brings us to our second main point. The whole point of copyright law is to promote progress. And that means encouraging expression so that the public can enjoy the fruits of it. But not every proposed change to the DMCA will lead to that result. In fact, many would do the exact opposite.
The problem is, many of the proposed changes presume that strengthening the power of a copyright holder automatically advances that greater interest. But in reality it doesn’t. And we suggested that the reform effort was being sidetracked by a string of misguided assumptions that needed challenging.
First there is the idea that digital technologies are causing economic harm to copyright holders, but it is an idea that should be treated with skepticism. For one thing, it treats the consumption of every “pirated” digital copy as a lost sale. It also ignores that some works are only consumable at a price of $0 and overlooks that copyright holders have historically flourished even when works were available for free, such as in libraries or on over-the-air radio. In other words, the consumption of copyrighted works for free does not automatically equate to economic harm to copyright holders.
And then there is the presumption that copyright holders and creators are one and the same, and thus economic harm to the former means that there’s economic harm to the latter. In fact, copyright holders and creators may frequently be entirely different entities – and even stuck being entirely different entities – with entirely different economic interests. Furthermore, advancing the interests of copyright holders may actually be adverse to the interests of creators, with the former potentially wanting to maximize profit from specific works, and the latter potentially more economically advantaged over all if they can develop robust market interest for their works over all.
Next we pointed out that hobbling digital technologies imposes its own economic harm, which should be the last thing for copyright law to encourage. We noted that it is not good that Veoh Networks got financially obliterated by the process of trying to assert its DMCA safe harbor defense (which was ultimately vindicated), because the Section 512 safe harbor provision is so needlessly cumbersome to deploy. It is not good that we now have one less competitor to YouTube and one less outlet available for creators. Nor is it ok that Seeqpod, a search engine dedicated to helping locate creative works, is now no longer available for people to use to find the works of artists they might then choose to support. The loss of these companies, their jobs, their innovation, and their economic energy is a loss that copyright law, including the DMCA, should lament, not exacerbate.
The loss of these platforms also directly harms the economic interests of creators. Here we challenged two assumptions, one, that the economic interests of platforms are somehow in conflict with creators’, and two, that creators and platform users are somehow different. In reality creators are platform users. When the DMCA causes platforms facilitating user expression to disappear, or even the expression itself to disappear, those users themselves are creators who are being affected. And that affects their economic interests by depriving them of outlets to promote their works or even directly monetize them. None of these consequences are consistent with what copyright law is intended to accomplish, and any reform effort should make sure to avoid them too.