Do you allow the posting of content created by third parties on your website (e.g. videos, audio files, or even written comments)?  Do you run any on-line service where you collect information provided by third parties (whether that be a dating service, auction site or other classified service)?  If you do, you probably know that you are safe from copyright claims for infringing content that is posted by those who are not your employees or agents if you follow certain steps.  We have written about these steps to give you the "safe harbor" from copyright liability for "user-generated content" before.  The steps include requirements that you not encourage or profit from the infringing content, that you have terms of use for your service that forbid users from posting infringing content, and that you take down infringing content when you receive notice from copyright holders that it has been uploaded to your site or service by a third party.  To take advantage of this safe harbor from liability, services are required to register with the Copyright Office the name of someone in their company who can be served with "take-down notices" from copyright owners.  The process of registration is now proposed to be changed in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking just issued by the Copyright Office.  Comments on this notice can be filed through November 28. Replies are due by December 27.

The safe harbor was created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, adopted in 1998.  Since that time, the registration of agents to receive take-down notices has been governed by interim rules.  Services register by sending a paper form and a filing fee to the Copyright Office, and that information is manually entered by the Copyright Office into a list that is available on the Copyright Office website.  From experience, the time from the filing of such a registration to its appearance on the Copyright Office's website can take several weeks or more.  The Copyright Office, in its Notice, states that it has done some informal checks on the information in its database of registered agents, and found that the list contains duplicate registrations, registrations for companies or sites that are no longer in operation (services are supposed to tell the Office when they stop their operations), and many outdated addresses (services are supposed to update their agents as employees change, but apparently they sometimes forget).  The NPRM proposes to move to an electronic registration system, which will automatically request a verification of the registered information on a regular basis.  In making this proposal, the Copyright Office asks for public comment on a number of issues.

The process proposed by the Copyright Office, and the issues that it feels that it needs to address before implementing the system, are many.  They include the following:

  • Should the system be organized based on the name of the Service, or based on the URLs of the websites registered?
    • If registered by website, are "apps" developed for mobile devices all associated with a readily identifiable URL that a copyright holder will know if it wants to file a take-down notice, or should apps be registered differently?
    • If registered by Service, should subsidiaries and alternate trade names be registered on one filing, or should each have to register independently?
  • Should a service be able to register an agent who is not an employee (e.g. a law firm or other service)?  The Copyright Office expresses reluctance, as such agents may not be diligent in processing take-down notices.
  • Must an individual name be provided, or is an office or title at a Service sufficient?
  • Should email addresses of the services (as well as those of the agents) be provided?  Should email addresses be made public in the Copyright Office's database?
  • How should the Copyright Office deal with situations where there are duplicate entries, such as when a seller of a URL does not notify the Copyright Office of its discontinuance of use, and the Buyer registers an agent for the same URL?
  • How can the Copyright Office guard against fraudulent registrations?
  • What information should be provided in the registration?  (Currently legal name, address, alternate names, phone number and email address of the agent are required)
  • Should the Copyright Office maintain periodic snapshots of its database ( what they call "versioning") so that parties can determine whether a proper agent was designated at various times in the past?
  • The Copyright Office suggests that Services may need to periodically validate the information that they have on file.  They ask how often such validation should be required?  

An automated system, where information is easily retrievable, and which automatically reminds services to update their information, seems like a real benefit both to copyright holders (who will be able to more easily access the proper person for take-down notices) and service providers (who will be reminded to keep their information current).  Obviously, there are many questions to be answered before the new system can be implemented.  However, with so many businesses now allowing some form of user-generated content, this is an important process with broad impact.  So review the Copyright Office's NPRM, and file comments on issues that are raised by the NPRM.  The new system will eventually require new registrations from all services, but expect that it will be some time before the Office resolves the issues raised in this proceeding, and develops the software system necessary to implement that proposals that it has made in the NPRM.  But the process is underway. 

Also, remember that there is also a safe harbor from most other legal liability for user generated content (including defamation) under provisions of the Communications Decency Act.  We have written about that issue before (see, for instance, this article).  Thus, if you follow the rules, service can allow users to post information to their sites without fear of legal liability.