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What is DMCA? The Digital Millennium Copyright Act explained

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(Image credit: Unsplash)

The internet is a double-edged sword. When you share your content online, it immediately becomes accessible to people around the world—and with all that extra exposure, the risk of others copying or stealing your work increases exponentially.

You’ve probably heard of the DMCA and other laws that protect copyrighted online content. But what is DMCA? Where is it enforced, and what’s considered a violation? And if you’re worried about receiving a DMCA takedown notice for legitimate content, what are the best anonymous hosting solutions for you? 

Read on for answers to these and other commonly asked questions about DMCA.

What is DMCA?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act—or DMCA—is a US federal copyright law that was introduced in 1998. While there were few regulations or protections for online content in the web’s early days, DMCA changed the online landscape by giving copyright owners more control over who has the right to use their work and in what ways. 

The law also limits liability for internet service providers (ISPs) and online platforms that may host copyrighted content. Under DMCA, web users can’t legally upload content that doesn’t belong to them. Materials such as photos, videos, and music can’t be used or shared online without the content owner’s permission. 

Anyone who violates DMCA policy can be forced to take down or delete copyrighted material from their site.

Is DMCA enforced outside of the US?

Because the DMCA is a US law, it is only enforceable within the US. If the hosting website is based in the US, it is subject to DMCA regulations, regardless of whether the site owner or copyright owner are physically present in the country. 

Although the DMCA doesn’t apply outside of the US, some copyright owners send DMCA takedown notices to non-US websites. Many sites will comply with the request in accordance with regional and international copyright laws. 

Websites in countries that have signed the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaty are especially likely to honor DMCA takedown notices.

What constitutes a DMCA violation?

The DMCA’s Fair Use policy permits certain copyrighted material to be used in specific ways. For example, it’s legal to use content for “transformative” purposes where you’re building upon the original work or creating something new from it. 

You may also be able to use copyrighted content for some non-commercial purposes, or if your use of the material doesn’t degrade the value of the original content. However, if you’re using copyrighted material without the owner’s permission (and in a way that’s not covered by Fair Use), you are in violation of the DMCA. 

Some common examples of violations include:

  • Using copyrighted photos in a blog post
  • Plagiarizing written content from another site
  • Adding unlicensed music or videos to a site for others to stream or download

What are the penalties for violating DMCA?

When someone commits a DMCA violation, they may receive a DMCA notice asking them to take down or delete all copyrighted content immediately. If they fail to comply, the offender could have their account or website suspended by their ISP. They could also be subject to civil or criminal penalties. 

Copyright law violators may pay up to $30,000 in civil fines and damages. In criminal cases, convicted DMCA offenders may also face five to 10 years in jail and up to $1 million in fines.

What can I do if someone has unlawfully used my copyrighted material?

When someone uses your copyrighted work without your consent, you can file a DMCA claim against the infringing party. The offender will receive a DMCA takedown notice, and at this point, they’ll usually remove the infringing content from their site. However, they can submit a counterclaim if they don’t believe they’ve violated the DMCA.

Once you’ve filed a claim, give the other party time to respond. If they do not remove your content or file a counterclaim, you could file a lawsuit and attempt to recover damages. Or, if you don’t wish to pursue the matter any further, you may decide to drop the request.

How can I avoid violating DMCA myself?

Avoiding DMCA violations is not always as clear-cut as it might seem. Some violations are unintentional. For example, a hobby blogger might think it’s completely reasonable to use photos from a Google search on her website, especially if she’s not using her blog for commercial purposes. 

Would her use of the photos be considered Fair Use? Possibly—the Fair Use criteria are vague and could be interpreted in various ways by courts. But at the very least, using photos without their owners’ permission puts the blogger at risk of a DMCA violation and a lawsuit. 

When in doubt, err on the side of caution and avoid using any content that you don’t own (or aren’t licensed to use).

What should I do if I receive a DMCA takedown notice?

If you know that you have violated DMCA, or if you believe you may have done so, you should remove the offending content from your site immediately. You could face steep fines or even jail time by continuing to use copyrighted material against the owner’s wishes.

However, keep in mind that not all DMCA claims are valid. Some copyright owners intentionally abuse DMCA by filing frivolous or wrongful copyright infringement claims. If you don’t believe there’s any basis for a DMCA claim against you, you can file a counterclaim. 

It’s best to take down the disputed material anyway until after the claim is resolved, but if the original DMCA complaint is found to have been invalid, you won’t be penalized.

What is DMCA ignored hosting?

Web hosts with servers in non-DMCA-compliant countries can provide what’s known as DMCA ignored hosting. Essentially, this type of hosting lets you bypass DMCA requirements and protect your website from being suspended (since the site is hosted outside of the US).

While ignored hosting may seem shady, there are legitimate reasons to consider it, especially if you’re a business owner. Competitors could harass or target you with DMCA claims, even if there’s nothing remotely illegal on your website. Unwarranted takedown notices are common.

Any DMCA claim is a potential threat to your website and company, and choosing ignored hosting can offer you an additional layer of protection against illegitimate claims.

Summary

The DMCA is one of the most influential laws governing online content in the US. For content owners, it provides rights and protections to help safeguard copyrighted material. The law also offers guidelines to netizens on fair ways to use the wealth of content available online.

Intellectual property is a complex issue, especially in online spaces, but laws like the DMCA exist to protect creative work while still promoting a free and democratic exchange of ideas.