Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit held that video sharing site Veoh is immune from copyright liability under the DMCA in what will likely become a seminal ruling for copyright and the internet.
Plaintiff Universal Music Group had asked the Circuit Court to reverse the lower court’s holding that Veoh qualified for the DMCA safe harbor on several grounds:
- “[T]he alleged infringing activities do not fall within the plain meaning of ‘infringement of copyright by reason of the storage [of material] at the direction of a user’”
- “Veoh had actual knowledge of infringement, or was ‘aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity [wa]s apparent’”
- “Veoh ‘receive[d] a financial benefit directly attributable to . . . infringing activity’ that it had the right and ability to control.”
The Circuit Court rejected all of these arguments. The full opinion is available here. Some preliminary thoughts follow.
Infringement by Reason of Storage
The court’s conclusion that Veoh’s operations fall within the scope of § 512(c) is not a surprise. It interpreted the statute’s “by reason of” language broadly — protecting service providers from any infringing activity that occurs on their site stemming from a user’s upload.
But while this interpretation may be reasonable in light of how the internet has developed, it is no doubt an expansion on the original intent of the language. The court says “if Congress wanted to confine § 512(c) exclusively to web hosts rather than reach a wider range of service providers, we very much doubt it would have done so with the oblique ‘by reason of storage’ language.” But of course, this reasoning begs the question. When Congress passed the DMCA, “user-generated content” had yet to even enter the lexicon — Congress couldn’t have factored a type of service provider that didn’t exist yet into the law.
I’ve talked previously about how sites like Veoh, YouTube, and other Web 2.0/UGC sites are arguably beyond the scope of protection of 512(c). The provision was drafted at a time when storing content at the direction of a user was primarily a collateral or passive function of service providers. For UGC sites, this “storage” is the sine qua non of their business model.
I’m certainly not saying such sites should be strictly liable for infringement by their users, or even required to monitor or prescreen uploads. But I also don’t think the only thing they need do to qualify for the DMCA safe harbor is respond to takedown notices. Unauthorized content unquestionably subsidizes many UGC sites — it’s perfectly reasonable that such sites subsidize copyright enforcement. As unavoidable as the expansion of the scope of this safe harbor might be, it may be the case that the language may need to be revisited at some point down the road.
Actual and Apparent Knowledge
The court’s holding that “general knowledge that [a service provider's] services could be used to post infringing material” is insufficient to eliminate DMCA safe harbor protection is consistent with what other courts have held.1
The court does, however, engage in a bit of curious reasoning to come to this conclusion. It notes:
Further, Congress’ express intention that the DMCA “facilitate making available quickly and conveniently via the Internet . . . movies, music, software, and literary works” — precisely the service Veoh provides — makes us skeptical that UMG’s narrow interpretation of § 512(c) is plausible. S. Rep. No. 105-190, at 8.
This is curious because the quote used by the 9th Circuit used is not referring to the purpose behind the DMCA safe harbors, it is referring to the purpose behind the anti-circumvention and copyright management information provisions of the DMCA.2
By conflating the purpose of stronger digital protections for copyright owners with the purpose for limiting the liability of service providers, it essentially creates a logical absurdity within the Copyright Act: promoting the progress of the arts and sciences through exclusive rights is accomplished when ignoring those exclusive rights is made easier.
The Ninth Circuit leaves us still with little meaningful distinction between actual knowledge and apparent — so-called “red flag” — knowledge. It says “that the burden” for bringing red flags to service provider’s attention “remains with the copyright holder rather than the service provider.” The summary conclusion is that “Veoh’s general knowledge that it hosted copyrightable material and that its services could be used for infringement is insufficient to constitute a red flag.”
But it does mention one way a service provider can have apparent knowledge, at least in theory. The Ninth Circuit notes that if “notification had come from a third party, such as a Veoh user, rather than from a copyright holder, it might meet the red flag test because it specified particular infringing material.”
Right and Ability to Control
The clear discussion of the interplay between safe harbor and common law vicarious liability is to be commended. As court explains, the two are independent: Congress intended the safe harbor to protect against vicarious liability if the statute’s conditions are met, even though the requirement that a service provider doesn’t have the “right and ability to control” infringing activity seems synonymous with the common law articulation of vicarious liability. Yet some courts still get tripped up by this concept.
However, I am a bit troubled by court’s interpretation of “right and ability to control” as being dependent on scope of service:
Where, as here, it is a practical impossibility for Veoh to ensure that no infringing material is ever uploaded to its site, or to remove unauthorized material that has not yet been identified to Veoh as infringing, we do not believe that Veoh can properly be said to possess the “needed powers . . . or needed resources” to be “competen[t] in” exercising the sort of “restraining domination” that § 512(c)(1)(B) requires for denying safe harbor eligibility.
You hear this often from DMCA maximalists: it’s just too hard to control infringement on the internet. But this seems similar to a “too big to fail” argument — eventually, a service provider becomes “too big to be liable for infringement.”
Viewed this way, the interpretation doesn’t seem to comport with real world views on liability. Imagine a factory owner who says he dumps a lot of stuff into the river, and it’s not possible as a practical matter to ensure that none of that stuff is toxic. Or imagine a government that says it arrests a lot of people, and it doesn’t have the needed resources to exercise the type of restraining domination to ensure that none of them were wrongfully arrested.
Yes, there are differences between offline services and online services. But I don’t know if that should mean a complete departure from liability principles — especially since sites like Veoh and YouTube did not sprout online, organically and fully-formed. The fact remains that sites like these were purposely designed to provide content acquired through user uploads, just as services like Hulu and Netflix were purposely designed to provide content acquired through licensing.
As I said earlier, I’m not suggesting in the least that sites like Veoh should be responsible for every upload. Just that “the right and ability to control” shouldn’t necessarily hinge on popularity.
Finally, it is good to see the Ninth Circuit reaffirm the fact that “willful blindness” can constitute knowledge under this section:
Accordingly, we hold that the ‘right and ability to control’ under § 512(c) requires control over specific infringing activity the provider knows about. A service provider’s general right and ability to remove materials from its services is, alone, insufficient. Of course, a service provider cannot willfully bury its head in the sand to avoid obtaining such specific knowledge.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment on the DMCA safe harbor and dismissal of the claims against the Investor defendants, who had been sued along with Veoh. It remanded to the lower court only for determination of whether Veoh can collect certain costs, excluding attorney’s fees, under FRCP 68.
That means the lawsuit is essentially over, barring an appeal by UMG to the Supreme Court.
The Second Circuit, of course, is currently considering similar issues in Viacom’s lawsuit against YouTube. It isn’t bound to follow the ruling here, but it will most likely have a look at the opinion. That opinion, of course, is still months away.
- See, for example, A & M Records v. Napster, 239 F.3d 1004 (9th Cir. 2001); Viacom v. YouTube, 718 F.Supp.2d 514, 523 (SDNY 2010); Corbis Corp. v. Amazon, 351 F.Supp.2d 1090, 1109 (WD Wash 2004). [↩]
- The HRCC has a copy of S. Rep. No. 105-190 available on its site. The relevant portion in full reads:
Due to the ease with which digital works can be copied and distributed worldwide virtually instantaneously, copyright owners will hesitate to make their works readily available on the Internet without reasonable assurance that they will be protected against massive piracy. Legislation implementing the treaties provides this protection and creates the legal platform for launching the global digital on-line marketplace for copyrighted works. It will facilitate making available quickly and conveniently via the Internet the movies, music, software, and literary works that are the fruit of American creative genius. It will also encourage the continued growth of the existing off-line global marketplace for copyrighted works in digital format by setting strong international copyright standards.
At the same time, without clarification of their liability, service providers may hesitate to make the necessary investment in the expansion of the speed and capacity of the Internet. In the ordinary course of their operations service providers must engage in all kinds of acts that expose them to potential copyright infringement liability. For example, service providers must make innumerable electronic copies by simply transmitting information over the Internet. Certain electronic copies are made to speed up the delivery of information to users. Other electronic copies are made in order to host World Wide Web sites. Many service providers engage in directing users to sites in response to inquiries by users or they volunteer sites that users may find attractive. Some of these sites might contain infringing material. In short, by limiting the liability of service providers, the DMCA ensures that the efficiency of the Internet will continue to improve and that the variety and quality of services on the Internet will continue to expand. [↩]