Businesses and people alike each have recurring routine tasks they need to perform to stay in good shape. Every year we prepare corporate filings, undergo our necessary medical examinations, and file our taxes.1 And starting in December 2019, companies began adding a new task to this checklist: renewing their DMCA Agent registration. Is your company prepared?
The DMCA can protect your website from its users’ copyright infringement.
Anyone with a website that allows users to post content to the site, even in a simple comment section, risks liability for copyright infringement based on those users’ posts. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) helps website owners mitigate that risk. If you operate a site and you comply with the safe harbor criteria, the DMCA shields you from copyright liability. The DMCA isn’t limited to internet service providers; its safe harbor offers websites an immensely valuable protection against costly and lengthy copyright infringement lawsuits. A registered Agent is only one of the many required elements needed for DMCA compliance, but it’s a crucial requirement that’s easy to overlook.
Congress passed the DMCA in 1998 to strike a balance between protecting the dynamic creativity of internet users and enforcing federal copyright protection. And regardless of whether you think Congress managed to find that balance, the DMCA sets the standard for statutory copyright enforcement on the internet—users ignore it at their peril. Websites that don’t comply with the DMCA must2 screen every comment and post submitted to the site by anyone for potential copyright violations, because the site can be held directly liable for any infringing submissions.3 On the other hand, DMCA compliance makes the website essentially immune from its users’ infringement.
Social media networks are the most obvious beneficiaries of DMCA safe harbor protection. Can you imagine if Facebook or Twitter needed to pre-screen every single post or tweet before it went live? In exchange for this safe harbor protection, the DMCA requires businesses to (among other things) create and enforce copyright takedown procedures for copyright holders to use when they spot potentially infringing content on the website.4
The Designated Agent is a key part of DMCA compliance.
Every organization that seeks safe harbor protection needs to designate an Agent as the organization’s point of contact for takedown notices. The designation is submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office, where it’s published on a searchable database. The designated Agent (which can be one person or an entire department) is then responsible for receiving all of the company’s DMCA takedown notices and then ensuring that they are acted upon.
Each Agent designation is effective for three years. Whenever the designated Agent’s information is updated with the Copyright Office, the three-year clock starts over. But if a three-year period ends without an update or renewal, the designation becomes invalid and the organization’s DMCA safe harbor protection ends with it.
You don’t want to forget about your renewal and you shouldn’t wait three years between checkups.
Fortunately, it’s pretty simple to figure out when your company’s Agent designation will expire. You can check the date that your organization’s Agent was last updated by searching the DMCA Designated Agent Directory and clicking on the name of the Service Provider.5 Add three years to the displayed effective date, and that’s your deadline.
You could, in theory, set a calendar reminder for every three years and forget about the DMCA in the interim, but we don’t recommend it. What if your Agent takes a leave of absence or leaves the company? What if your company reorganizes and the designated department is renamed (or gets lost in the transition)? We recommend that you check your Agent’s status at least once a year, just to be safe. It only takes a moment to do.
When in doubt, check with your attorneys to make sure that your rights are still being protected.
There’s much more to DMCA protection beyond Agent registration. Copyright law is constantly evolving—especially when it comes to the internet. DMCA safe harbor protection has many requirements beyond just having a designated Agent, and there’s a lot at risk if your company doesn’t qualify for the safe harbor. You can’t “undo” a gap in safe harbor protection, but you can close the door on future liability. That’s a door you want to keep shut. As your business’s online presence grows, so does its exposure to potential liability.
So when you’re checking your DMCA Agent registration, don’t just tick the box and wait until the next year. Take the time to consider your DMCA protocols. If your company’s DMCA compliance protocols aren’t up to date and compliant, your safe harbor is in jeopardy. What about the company’s future needs? If your company’s online presence will be growing, is your designated Agent capable of handling an increased caseload of takedown notices? This is an area where it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Whether you’re trying to protect your own copyrights, or just trying to protect yourself from copyright liability, the attorneys at Ryley Carlock & Applewhite can help you safeguard your digital and intellectual property. We can help you and your company navigate the DMCA, GDPR, CCPA, and other alphabet soup statutes, so that you can concentrate on what you do best.
1 This article is not meant to provide specific legal or medical advice. If you would like more specific legal advice, please reach out and we would be happy to assist you. If you’re looking for specific medical advice, you’re reading the wrong article.
2 Or at least they really, really should.
3 Damages for copyright infringement are no joke. A successful plaintiff can receive their actual damages while also forcing the infringer to disgorge its profits from the infringement, or can alternatively obtain statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringed work.
4 Many articles could be (and have been) written on abusive and overzealous DMCA takedown notices, especially since the development of automated takedown services that can act without human interaction. For brevity’s sake, this article won’t dive into those deep waters.
5 If you run a website, you should assume that you’re a service provider under the DMCA.