In the United States copyrights are federally protected under the Copyright Act of 1976 . Unaddressed under the Copyright Act of 1976, exponential advances in technology in the nineties led to the proverbial “opening of the floodgates” for a deluge of a variety of infringing activity. To address these activities and to expand upon the rights of copyright owners in the modern age, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act  (DMCA) was passed in 1998.
In light of the liability several provisions of the DMCA imparted upon certain parties, such as online service providers, Congress further embedded the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act  within the DMCA. The Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, which is commonly referred to as the “Safe Harbor” provisions of the DMCA, provides immunity to online service providers from being liable for copyright infringement so long as the requirements and criteria of the Safe Harbor provisions are adhered.
The Safe Harbor provisions are divided into separate sections to address different circumstances. For instance, the Safe Harbor provisions address Transitory Digital Network Communications, System Caching, Information Location Tools, and Information Residing on Systems or Networks At Direction of Users. However, only the “Information Residing on Systems or Networks At Direction of Users” provision requires that service providers designate an agent in order to receive DMCA takedown requests.
DMCA Takedown Requests
Within the Copyright Act, the term “service provider” is defined as a party who, upon a user’s request, facilitates the transmission of requested material without modifying the content that is being transmitted, as well as those individuals or organizations who provide online or network service access. This includes most websites that allow users to post or store material on a service provider’s systems, such as search engines and directories, as well as internet service providers.
In order for a service provider to be exempt from liability from copyright infringement, the service provider must not have actual knowledge or be aware of the circumstances surrounding the allegedly infringing material or activity or, upon obtaining knowledge or awareness of such infringing material or activity, must expeditiously remove or disable access to the material. One of the most common methods a service provider gains knowledge or awareness of infringing material or activities is through what is referred to as the “notice and takedown system” or a “DMCA takedown notice.”
DMCA Takedown Notice Requirements
The requirements for a valid takedown notice are set forth in § 512 of the Copyright Act and include:
A physical or electronic signature of the owner of the allegedly infringed material, or an authorized agent of such owner;
Identification of the material that that is allegedly being infringed;
Identification of the allegedly infringing material or activity that is sufficient to allow the service provider to locate the material;
Contact information of the complaining party;
A statement that the complaining party has a “good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law”; and
A statement that “the information in the notification is accurate, and under penalty of perjury, that the complaining party is authorized to act on behalf of the owner…”
Notably, where a service provider is in receipt of a takedown notice which does not meet all of the notice requirements but at least identifies the protected work that is allegedly being infringed, the infringing material, and the complaining party’s contact information, the service provider is under a duty to take reasonable steps to contact the complaining party to obtain a proper notice in order for the Safe Harbor immunity to apply in such situations.
Defective DMCA Takedown Notices
Within the Safe Harbor provisions, the requirements for preparing a valid DMCA takedown notice are meticulously set out. Additionally, the Safe Harbor provisions provide that a defective notice, one which fails to substantially comply with the takedown notice requirements, shall not be considered as providing the service provider with knowledge or awareness of the infringing material or activities. The result of such a defective notice is that it rends from the notice any power it would have had to put an infringer on notice of that infringement. In essence, despite receipt of a defective notice, in the eyes of the law a service provider is regarded as not having actual knowledge or awareness of such infringing activities or material, which in turn provides the service provider with immunity from liability.
Misrepresentations in DMCA Takedown Notices
However, in instances where a sender has knowingly sent a takedown notice which materially misrepresents the infringing nature of the material or activity, then such sender shall be liable to the service provider “for any damages, including costs and attorneys’ fees, incurred . . . as the result of the service provider relying upon such misrepresentation.” Such “misrepresentation” can arise in many different circumstances, including when a sender of a DMCA takedown request fails to consider the “fair use” defense, acknowledged in the landmark case Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., where Universal Music had wrongfully sent a takedown request for a video of a child who was dancing to Prince's song “Let's Go Crazy” without considering whether such activity was protected under the fair use defense.
DMCA Registered Agent
The Safe Harbor provisions further provide that “[t]he limitations on liability established in this subsection apply to a service provider only if the service provider has designated an agent to receive notifications of claimed infringement.” Furthermore, service providers must make the designated registered agent’s name, physical address, phone number, and email address publicly accessible as well as to provide the U.S Copyright Office with such information.
It is required that a service provider appoint a DMCA registered agent in order to be able to avail itself of the DMCA Safe Harbor protection. Indeed, courts have held that service providers were unable to invoke the section 512 Safe Harbor with respect to any infringing conduct occurring until it has a designated agent registered with the Copyright Office. A service provider may only designate one DMCA agent, who may be an individual, a person or position within the service provider’s organization or an independent third-party entity.
In an effort to further facilitate the ease of appointing and managing a service provider’s designated DMCA agent, in 2016 the U.S Copyright Office launched the DMCA Designated Agent Directory which allows service providers to designate a DMCA agent and to pay the requisite fees online. With the potential substantial consequences of failing to designate DMCA registered and the affordability and ease in which a service provider can register a designated DMCA agent, it is imperative that any website owner fully comply with the DMCA Safe Harbor requirements so as to ensure protection from potential liability for infringing material or activities that are made available through your website.