Big, Confusing Mess Of A Fair Use Decision Over DMCA Takedowns
from the wait,-what? dept
The ruling in the 9th Circuit starts out great, but starts getting iffy pretty fast.
Her claim boils down to a question of whether copyright holders have been abusing the extrajudicial takedown procedures provided for in the DMCA by declining to first evaluate whether the content qualifies as fair use. We hold that the statute requires copyright holders to consider fair use before sending a takedown notification, and that failure to do so raises a triable issue as to whether the copyright holder formed a subjective good faith belief that the use was not authorized by law.Sounds good, right? Anyone sending a DMCA notice needs to take fair use into account before sending a takedown. That may be trouble for all of those automated takedown filing systems out there, many of which we've written about. The court also reiterates that fair use is not "allowed infringement," but rather it's not infringement at all. This is also important (even though it says that directly in the law, many people pretend that it's just an "allowed" infringement). The court is not impressed by Universal Music's defense in the case, in which it argues that fair use is "not authorized by law" because, as Universal falsely claims, it is merely a "defense" to infringement. The court says that's wrong:
Universal’s interpretation is incorrect as it conflates two different concepts: an affirmative defense that is labeled as such due to the procedural posture of the case, and an affirmative defense that excuses impermissible conduct. Supreme Court precedent squarely supports the conclusion that fair use does not fall into the latter camp: “[A]nyone who . . . makes a fair use of the work is not an infringer of the copyright with respect to such use.”So, that's all good. But... the details matter, and from that point on... they're weird. The court points to the earlier ruling, saying that the copyright holder "need only form a subjective good faith belief that a use is not authorized." Thus, as long as the issuer can come up with some sort of argument for why they didn't think it was fair use, they're probably safe.
As a result, Lenz’s request to impose a subjective standard only with respect to factual beliefs and an objective standard with respect to legal determinations is untenable.And because of that, the court leaves a big out for just about any copyright holder. It says the court has no place in questioning how the copyright holder decided whether the use was authorized or not:
To be clear, if a copyright holder ignores or neglects our unequivocal holding that it must consider fair use before sending a takedown notification, it is liable for damages under § 512(f). If, however, a copyright holder forms a subjective good faith belief the allegedly infringing material does not constitute fair use, we are in no position to dispute the copyright holder’s belief even if we would have reached the opposite conclusion.The court says a copyright holder can't just "pay lip service" to the idea that it checked on fair use, but in the same paragraph admits that, well, it basically can. Even worse, it says that forming a "good faith belief" doesn't require actually investigating the details:
In order to comply with the strictures of § 512(c)(3)(A)(v), a copyright holder’s consideration of fair use need not be searching or intensive. We follow Rossi’s guidance that formation of a subjective good faith belief does not require investigation of the allegedly infringing content.So.... huh? (1) You need to take into account if it's fair use or not and you need to show a "good faith belief" that it's fair use, but... (2) you don't actually have to investigate anything, and the court cannot review your reasons for having a good faith belief. That's not a loophole. It's a blackhole that collapses 512(f) in on itself.
From there, it actually notes that automated takedowns... may be fine:
We note, without passing judgment, that the implementation of computer algorithms appears to be a valid and good faith middle ground for processing a plethora of content while still meeting the DMCA’s requirements to somehow consider fair use. Cf. Hotfile, 2013 WL 6336286, at *47 (“The Court . . . is unaware of any decision to date that actually addressed the need for human review, and the statute does not specify how belief of infringement may be formed or what knowledge may be chargeable to the notifying entity.”). For example, consideration of fair use may be sufficient if copyright holders utilize computer programs that automatically identify for takedown notifications content where: “(1) the video track matches the video track of a copyrighted work submitted by a content owner; (2) the audio track matches the audio track of that same copyrighted work; and (3) nearly the entirety . . . is comprised of a single copyrighted work.”So, uh, what? Automated takedowns may be fine because that's sort of a way to consider fair use because... no reason given. That is not at all helpful.
On a separate note, the court confirms that the trial cannot move forward by arguing that Universal had "willful blindness" about the likelihood of fair use in the case, because Lenz didn't really show that Universal had willful blindness. So that's another dead end.
Finally, the court rejected Universal Music's claim that Lenz had to show monetary damages in order to recover damages under 512(f). The court says 512(f) spans more than just monetary damages. Of course, that's almost entirely meaningless in a world in which everyone has an out through "subjective good faith" that doesn't even require investigating anything.
So this is a ruling that looks good up top, but gets bad as you read the details. There is a dissent, from Judge Milan Smith, pointing out some of the problems with the majority ruling, and the loophole that it creates. As the dissent notes, stating that something is infringing when you haven't done any fair use analysis is a misrepresentation, and 512(f) covers misrepresentations. So, in the end, a possibly important ruling is undermined with a massive loophole, which likely will lead to a continuing barrage of DMCA takedowns, including automated takedowns that suppress speech. That seems... wrong.