Understanding DMCA with help from Michelle Shocked

It is a chronically repeated theme—and therefore a widely held misconception—that the DMCA is solely a mechanism for rights holders to unilaterally and unequivocally remove content from the Web “without due process.” In fact, this belief is so deeply ingrained that just citing the acronym by some journalists and bloggers is sufficient to denote censorship for many readers. We encounter language like censored by DMCA, speech chilled by DMCA, threatened with DMCA, and so on.  Unfortunately, this shorthand only perpetuates a general misunderstanding of what the DMCA is and how it works with regard to the remedies and counter remedies for alleged copyright infringements. As a result, critics who repeat this one-sided narrative can actually wind up frightening some of the very users and creators whose interests they claim to represent.

For starters, it should be understood that the process of sending notices or counter notices under DMCA is not a casual transaction for either sender or receiver.  Senders of takedown notices must declare under penalty of perjury that they are providing accurate information; that they are legally authorized to “act on behalf of the owner…”; and that they have “…a good faith belief that the use of the material is not authorized ….” Likewise, senders of counter notices, which are used to restore or retain contested material online, also must declare under penalty of perjury that they have “a good faith belief that the material was removed or disabled as the result of a mistake or misidentification .…” This can all be rather intimidating for both rights holders and for users of copyrighted material who don’t have access to legal departments—and who might even get all manner of bad advice from colleagues making unqualified assumptions about copyright. While the largest senders of DMCA takedown notices are, naturally, the corporate owners of thousands of works, the reason these entities are able to send out tens of millions of notices with a very small margin of error is that they do have legal departments dedicated to oversight and enforcement of their rights, and they do know what they’re doing.

But when an individual creator—whether amateur or professional—makes use of a work belonging to another individual creator, the possibility always exists that neither party quite knows where they stand legally, which can make DMCA appear rather confusing and spooky, depending on which end of a notice one happens to be on. This is one reason why some of the headline abuses of takedown procedure—the ones typically highlighted by copyright critics—can foster a general worry that DMCA is just a mechanism for censorship. But even in public statements and court filings by internet industry representatives, DMCA takedown abuse cases are cited in the hundreds—sometimes on a worldwide scale—relative to the 100-millionth-takedown-notice milestone, which Google alone reached in 2014. A ratio of less than 1%.

Still, among individuals and small entities, either a takedown notice or a counter-notice can be sent in error, even if the sender states he/she has made a good faith effort to understand the validity of a claim.  But the point I want to emphasize is that the general perception that a DMCA takedown notice is the final word (i.e. lacks due process) is actually a reversal of how the process works.  In fact, as I’ll expand upon with the anecdote to follow, it is the counter notice that is technically the final word within DMCA’s limited mechanisms. After that, if the copyright holder wants a file removed, and the uploader will not cooperate, the copyright holder’s only recourse is a court order pending litigation for copyright infringement presented to the ISP within 10 days of the filing of a counter notice.  So, it is not remotely accurate to describe DMCA as a tool for takedown without due process.  For a more detailed explanation of DMCA mechanisms, read Stephen Carlisle’s article from 2014.

How artist Michelle Shocked’s generosity is being abused by DMCA provisions. And why it matters.

A common category of video on YouTube is the musical cover.  People share these all the time, especially when the video features some adorable kid who’s killing it with her rendition of a popular song.  That most of these videos, which make use of copyrighted works, are not removed from YouTube may be attributed to one of three common factors:  1) that in 2013, YouTube entered into blanket licensing agreements with the major publishers on a vast library of popular music; or 2) that many rights holders of these works are somewhat ambivalent about these incidental uses and/or find the process of takedown too burdensome; or 3) that many rights holders actually enjoy these covers very much and are generally happy to see their work shared in this manner. When conflicts do arise, they tend to be fairly specific, pertaining to some distinct concern on the part of the independent creator who owns his/her copyrights and would, therefore, not be bound or covered by the aforementioned blanket license agreements.

One such artist is the singer/songwriter Michelle Shocked, who has been an adamant crusader on behalf of artists’ rights and is a regular follower of this blog. As serious as she is about protecting copyrights, she also happens to be totally cool with unlicensed YouTube video covers of her songs, as long as the user respects two simple conditions.  The first is that the video not be monetized with advertising because Shocked doesn’t want Google to earn revenue from her work without an agreement. In fact, because of her views on artists’ rights, she works to keep her own live and recorded performances off YouTube even though she is happy to let others publicly perform her songs on the platform.  The second condition is that Shocked prefers that her name not appear in the video file title, but rather in the description crediting her as songwriter/composer. The reasons for this are myriad with regard to maintaining some control over search results (and even monetization) of her name, but suffice to say, it’s her prerogative and an easy enough condition to respect.

So, in the utopian narrative of sharing and remixing and diffusion of culture and ideas—and all that feel-good stuff—Shocked’s two minor conditions for performing her songs without a license in YouTube videos seem both reasonable and entirely consistent with those high-minded aspirations of creativity in the digital-age people keep talking about. Fundamentally, she’s not asking for much effort beyond a little common courtesy, which one would think is also consistent with sharing and caring and so on. In fact, Shocked has had numerous cordial exchanges with online performers of her songs, thanking them for the cover but asking them politely to remove her name from the title. And until recently, all have been happy to comply, grateful to have a friendly exchange with the songwriter.

But this was not the case for one YouTuber, Steve Pierce, who uploaded a video of himself playing Shocked’s song “Memories of East Texas” and used her name in the main title of the video file.  As usual, her first response was to write Pierce, thank him for his “beautiful cover” of her song, and to ask that he kindly remove her name from the title and instead use it in the description.  After some time without a response from him, and seeing no change to the file name, Shocked sent a takedown notice using DMCA procedures and subsequently received notice from YouTube that Pierce filed a counter notice in which he stated his opinion that his video cover performance constitutes a “fair use.”  Now, we have a ballgame, and here’s why:*

In a hypothetical lawsuit, a court would almost certainly deny a fair use defense for an individual’s unlicensed video recording and public distribution of a cover song, as this would appear to effectively throw out the purpose of both the mechanical and public performance rights altogether. My point is not, however, to play amateur legal soothsayer about a hypothetical case but rather to note that Pierce’s invocation of the words “fair use”—for a use otherwise covered by a specific type of compulsory license—seems to be a common habit among non-attorneys of late. But “fair use” is not a magical incantation that will automatically ward off all infringement claims.  In reality, Pierce’s use is not “fair” but instead has been made conditionally available to him by permission of the author. And because he chooses to not respect one of those conditions, the point I’m stressing here is that Shocked is actually quite limited by the mechanisms in DMCA.  Her only recourse is to litigate or let it go.

Because Michelle Shocked owns all her copyrights and has no agreements with YouTube—and because Pierce’s fair use defense would very likely be denied—her claim should theoretically be quite solid.  But the merits of a hypothetical case are secondary to the fact that she never wanted to sue anybody in the first place.  It’s a pain in the butt and very expensive to sue people in federal court. Plus, she has no problem with the content of the video itself, only with the use of her name in the title. So, maybe you’re thinking, “Big deal. So he used her name. Let it go.” In practical terms, perhaps, but in principle not necessarily.

Shocked’s story provides an instructive example of the functional weakness in DMCA for the individual rights holder. And this is why it’s infuriating to independent creators in particular to hear the repeated theme that DMCA is just a big, digital eraser used to summarily remove content from the Web without recourse.  Exactly the opposite is true; DMCA is largely a voluntary mechanism in which the individual creator asks, “Please remove this,” and a perfectly legal response may be, “No. And you can sue me if you don’t like it.”

Moreover, under these circumstances, what is really stopping this user, and therefore YouTube, from ignoring Shocked’s first condition that videos of her works not be monetized by advertising?  Certainly nothing within the scope of the DMCA.  In theory, this would mean that Google could get away with generating revenue from this use despite the artist’s desire to generously share her work with people in a non-commercial context. This is a hypothetical projection in this case, of course, but not if we look more broadly at the ebb and flow of infringements on the YouTube platform over time.  In fact, Google’s monetizing the infringing material its users upload and re-upload is the crux of rights holders’ conflicts with that company; and the neutrality it asserts while earning billions of ad-revenue dollars is one reason many see flaws in the safe harbor provisions of DMCA.

Understanding what DMCA is and how it really works is important, if people really want to claim that they care about the artist and culture more than the big corporation.  In the end, Steve Pierce’s cover song will probably not be heard by millions—or even likely thousands—of listeners; and the video itself will remain one relatively innocuous clip in a sea of billions.  But if we multiply Michelle Shocked’s experience by thousands of independent, fledgling new artists out there, it’s not difficult to see how perpetuating the myth that DMCA skews in favor of rights holders can result in one or two dominant Internet platforms dictating terms to creators in the long run.


*Mr. Pierce’s name was originally misidentified as Martin DX1KAE, which is the type of guitar he’s playing and not his YouTube handle.  See comments from Mr. Pierce in response to this article.

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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