The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, frequently referenced as the DMCA, is a U.S. law that amends the copyright code to take computer technology into account. Most sections of the DMCA are focused on piracy—that is, the illicit copying and distribution of software, digital music files, and videos. Modern technology makes it relatively easy to copy a music CD or share song files over the internet. Duplicating software programs and films can be done in much the same way. The DMCA both allows copyright owners to set up digital rights management tools to protect their works, and sets penalties for those who circumvent those protections.
Digital Rights Management Resources
Digital rights management, or DRM, is a wide range of protections available to copyright owners under the DMCA. Sometimes, simply listing the owner’s name can be a form of DRM. More often, though, it involves more sophisticated technology. Locks on music CDs that prevent tracks from being copied more than a certain number of times are one example. Restrictions on which devices eBook readers can use to read material, which service providers smartphone users can subscribe to, and the code keys and access numbers required by software programs and video games are only a few of the many other instances of DRM in daily life.
- What Every Citizen Should Know About DRM is an informational article published by the advocacy group Public Knowledge. It covers the basics of the technology, and suggests likely implications when it comes to how consumers may legitimately want to use digital material they have purchased.
- The Federal Trade Commission’s Digital Rights Management Workshop, which took place in March 2009, hammered out many of the most pressing DRM issues held by consumers and manufacturers alike. Though the conference is long over, the website provides links to testimony and supporting documents that help paint a picture of how federal regulators have traditionally approached DRM.
- Digital Rights Management and Libraries, a webpage hosted by the American Library Association, explains the role of DRM as it impacts the loaning of books and digital materials through the public library system.
- The DRM Technologies page on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website outlines what the DMCA says about DRM, and provides examples of instances where device manufacturers may be taking the law too far.
Seminal Lawsuits and Cases
When the DMCA first became law, many believed that it would be enforced primarily against blatant copyright offenders. Those who were flagrantly violating copyright law by sharing protected files online, manufacturing pirated software programs, or selling bootlegged movies were the key targets. As time has worn on, however, the law has been used in many arguably more grey areas. A survey of recent case law shows the breadth of the DMCA’s reach.
- Murphy v. Millennium Radio Group LLC established that DRM does not have to be technological. The Third Circuit ruled in this case that a photographer’s name and credit information on a picture fell within the DMCA’s definition of “copyright management information,” and thus qualified as DRM. A person who chopped that information off before posting a photo online was held liable for violation.
- Viacom International Inc. v. YouTube Inc. held that content-hosting sites—YouTube in this case, but the ruling also could be applied to sites like Flickr, Vimeo, and others—are immune from copyright liability under the DMCA so long as they promptly respond to user complaints and remove potentially infringing content. This is true whether or not the site knows or suspects that posted content breaks copyright law.
- In Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., the Northern District of California ruled that copyright owners cannot summarily issue takedown notices for potentially infringing content online without first assessing whether that content falls within an accepted fair use defense. In this case, a home video of a baby dancing to a song on the radio was claimed by that song’s owner to be a violation of the DMCA, and was taken off of YouTube. The court disagreed, and awarded damages to the video’s creator.
- The Vernor v. Autodesk ruling out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that software purchasers are licensees of the programs they buy, not owners under the DMCA. The court ruled that a man who tried to sell excess copies of a corporate software program on internet auction site eBay ran afoul of the DMCA’s protections, since he was not, in fact, the true owner of the programs. His company was a licensee, but that license did not permit sales.
Commentaries and Articles
In the nearly fifteen years of its existence, the DMCA has generated substantial press, both within the legal community and the general media. Commentaries and articles written by experts seek to deconstruct the law’s many ins and outs. Sometimes these pieces prove provocative, and challenges certain provisions. Other times, they are merely explanatory.
- The Digital Millennium Copyright Act Summary, published by the United States Copyright Office, serves as the official government commentary on the law. This document was released shortly after the DMCA was enacted.
- The University of California-Los Angeles Online Institute for Cyberspace Law and Policy’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act page walks through the highlights and potential pitfalls of the law, with links to other resources, both internal and external.
- “10 Years Later, Misunderstood DMCA is the Law that Saved the Web,” an article appearing in the October 27, 2008 Wired Magazine, details how the DMCA can be attributed for the boom in blogs, social networking, and video sharing online.
- “Google’s DMCA Takedowns Leaving Blogger Users High and Dry,” from Ars Technica in March 2009, describes why blog owners—particularly those who use Google’s popular “Blogger” platform—should know and understand their rights under the DMCA.
- The Twitter Transparency Report, released in July 2012, reveals how many DMCA takedown notices Twitter has received since the service went live. In addition to comments left on the Twitter blog, the report has spurned numerous articles and commentaries across the web. The Huffington Post, The Daily Mail,and The Computer Business Review are only a handful of the news outlets that picked up this story..
DMCA-Focused Publications and Journals
Despite the breadth of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the law does not typically generate a consistent enough stream of cases to warrant regular journals and dedicated publications. Nevertheless, many more digitally-inclined copyright publications tend to be hotbeds of DMCA material. Exploring these collections is often the best way to keep abreast of developments and trending analysis.
- The Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, a quarterly publication from the Vanderbilt University Law School, is one of the most authoritative collections on DMCA case law and professional commentary.
- Bloomberg BNA’s Computer Technology Law Report contains not only summaries of recent DMCA case law, but also insights from and interviews with the lawyers involved at the front lines. The report is published bi-weekly, with the option of daily e-updates.
- IASPM@Journal, the web-based publication of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, follows DMCA trends as they affect the music and recording industries. The journal’s web page provides a searchable index that can be filtered by date, subject matter, or keyword.
- The Stanford Technology Law Review, an exclusively online journal from the Stanford University Law School, covers developments in technology law across the board. The DMCA is a common topic, and relevant articles and commentaries can be isolated using the site’s interactive search tool.
- ABA Journal’s Copyright Law Blawg, hosted by the American Bar Association, serves as a clearinghouse for articles that touch on the DMCA and other copyright issues in the digital age. Commentary can be located either alphabetically or chronologically.
Lawyers and others who want to learn more about the DMCA and how it is likely to affect their clients or businesses often join copyright organizations. Organizations bring similarly-situated professionals together to share tips, network, and learn from each other.
- The Copyright Society of the USA is an advocacy group open to all copyright holders, copyright attorneys, and corporations interested in promoting the protection of written and recorded work.
- The International Federation of Library Associations’ Committee on Copyright and Other Legal Matters is dedicated to the unique copyright issues, both print and digital, faced by libraries. Most of its members are librarians, though most anyone with a passion for preserving free access to information can join.
- The Entertainment Software Association advocates and lobbies on behalf of video game rights holders. The DMCA is not this group’s only issue, but it is a regular hot topic.
- The Motion Picture Association of America lobbies for the rights of filmmakers, and actively pursues DMCA protections for members.
- The Recording Industry Association of America provides DMCA support and advice to members of the music and digital music recording industries.