The US Department of Justice calls this “among the largest criminal copyright cases ever brought by the United States,” though I wouldn’t be surprised if it is actually the largest such case — I’m not aware of any larger criminal actions.1 No doubt the proceedings will be followed closely by many over the next few months.
Already, the arrest has had a sharp effect online, with other cyberlockers scaling back or shutting down altogether.
While the federal government’s action against Megaupload — which had been in the works since March 2010 (months before ICE even began its Operation In Our Sites) — will obviously have many ramifications for the future of copyright law online, I wanted to focus specifically on one of the legal issues that may be implicated in the case.
Does the DMCA apply to criminal infringement?
Perhaps the most novel legal issue that may arise during the Megaupload proceedings is whether the DMCA safe harbors provide the defendants with any defense.
As an initial matter, it seems to be an open question whether the DMCA safe harbors are available to any criminal defendant. The U.S. appears to adopt the view that they aren’t.2
The indictment notes without further explanation that “Internet providers gain a safe harbor under the DMCA from civil copyright infringement suits in the United States if they meet certain criteria [emphasis added],” although it subsequently offers reasons why the Megaupload defendants wouldn’t qualify for the defense anyway.
The language of the statute plausibly supports this view. Though it references only “infringement of copyright” — which could include both criminal and civil infringement — it merely shields service providers from “liab[ility] for monetary relief, or [in some circumstances] injunctive or other equitable relief.” This is civil lawsuit language — criminal defendants are punished with fines, not liable for monetary relief.
In addition, criminal liability would seem to preclude safe harbor protection solely as a matter of common sense. Criminal copyright infringement requires willful infringement. The DMCA safe harbor only protects service providers from liability for passive infringement. If the evidence shows that a defendant was willfully infringing copyrighted works beyond a reasonable doubt, it doesn’t seem possible that that same defendant could ever meet the requirements for safe harbor protection under the statute.
Deduplication and the DMCA
Regardless, the indictment alleges that even if the DMCA safe harbors are available to criminal defendants, the Megaupload defendants failed to satisfy the conditions for eligibility.
Among other things, Megaupload used deduplication, a common technical process used by online services to reduce the amount of storage needed for data. In Capitol Records v. MP3Tunes, Capitol argued that a similar process made the defendant liable for public performances of sound recordings, but the Southern District Court of New York disagreed, calling it a “standard data compression algorithm that eliminates redundant digital data” that didn’t give rise to liability.
It was a small win for MP3Tunes, however, since the court held that its failure to remove the actual files stored on its service when it received a DMCA takedown notice, rather than just links to the files, disqualified it from safe harbor protection.
The indictment alleges that Megaupload operated much the same way. When a user uploads a file already present on the system, “the system provides a new and unique URL link to the new user that is pointed to the original file already present on the server. If there is more than one URL link to a file, then any attempt by the copyright holder to terminate access to the file using the Abuse Tool or other DMCA takedown request will fail because the additional access links will continue to be available.”
If the Eastern District of Virginia follows the same reasoning as the MP3Tunes court, this doesn’t necessarily mean Megaupload is ultimately liable, but it would mean that it wouldn’t be protected by the DMCA.
I don’t know for certain how big a role the DMCA safe harbor will play in the case; only time will tell. But I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on the legal developments of what promises to be a watershed moment in copyright history.
- The closest seems to be Operation Safehaven in 2003. [↩]
- The U.S. is not alone in adopting this view. See, for example, Eric Goldman, A Road to No Warez, 82 Or. L. Rev. 369, 425 (2003), “In the DMCA, Congress putatively provided some facilitators a safe harbor from civil liability for user-caused infringement [emphasis added].” [↩]