Endless Whack-A-Mole: Why Notice-and-Staydown Just Makes Sense

Producer Richard Gladstein knows all about piracy. As he recently wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, his latest film, The Hateful Eight, was “viewed illegally in excess of 1.3 million times since its initial theatrical release on Christmas Day.” Gladstein is not shy about pointing fingers and naming names. He pins the blame, in no small part, on Google and (its subsidiary) YouTube—the “first and third most trafficked websites on the internet.” While acknowledging that fair use is important, Gladstein argues that it has become “an extremely useful tool for those looking to distract from or ignore the real copyright infringement issue: piracy.” His point is that it’s simply not fair use when someone uploads an entire copyrighted work to the internet, and claims that service providers can’t tell when something is infringing are disingenuous.

Gladstein questions why Google and YouTube pretend they are “unable to create and apply technical solutions to identify where illegal activity and copyright infringement are occurring and stop directing audiences toward them.” In his estimation, “Google and YouTube have the ability to create a vaccine that could eradicate the disease of content theft.” While Gladstein doesn’t mention the DMCA or its notice-and-takedown provisions specifically, I think what he has in mind is notice-and-staydown. That is, once a service provider is notified that the copyright owner has not authorized a given work to be uploaded to a given site, that service provider should not be able to maintain its safe harbor if it continues hosting or linking to the given work.

No small amount of ink has been spilled pointing out that the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown provisions have led to an endless game of whack-a-mole for copyright owners. Google’s own transparency report boasts how its search engine has received requests to take down over 63 million URLs in the past month alone. And it helpfully tells us that it’s received over 21 million such requests over the past four years for just one site: rapidgator.net. Google’s transparency doesn’t extend to how many times it’s been asked to remove the same work, nor does it tell us anything about takedown requests for YouTube. But there’s no reason to think those numbers aren’t equally as frustrating for copyright owners.

The question one should ask is why these numbers aren’t frustrating for Google and YouTube, as they have to deal with the deluge of notices. Apparently, they don’t mind at all. According to the testimony of Google’s Senior Copyright Policy Counsel, Katherine Oyama, the “DMCA’s shared responsibility approach works.” Oyama notes that Google has spent tens of millions of dollars creating the infrastructure necessary to efficiently respond to the increasing number of takedown notices it receives, but many (if not most) copyright owners don’t have those kinds of resources. For them, it’s daily battles of manually locating infringements across the entire internet and sending takedown notices. For Google, it’s mostly-automated responses to take down content that otherwise brings ad-based revenue.

These struggles hit individual authors and artists the hardest. As the U.S. Copyright Office noted in its recently-announced study of the DMCA, “[m]any smaller copyright owners . . . lack access to third-party services and sophisticated tools to monitor for infringing uses, which can be costly, and must instead rely on manual search and notification processes—an effort that has been likened to ‘trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.’” What makes the process so frustrating—and futile—is the fact that the same works get uploaded to the same platforms time and time again. And any time spent sending the same takedown notice to the same service provider is time that is not spent honing one’s craft and creating new works.

Gladstein is correct: Service providers like Google and YouTube could be doing more. And, somewhat ironically, doing more for copyright owners would actually mean that both sides end up doing less. The obvious solution to the whack-a-mole problem is notice-and-staydown—it just makes sense. There’s simply no reason why a copyright owner should have to keep telling a service provider the same thing over and over again.

Those who object to notice-and-staydown often point out that the DMCA process is susceptible to abuse. Indeed, there are some who send notices in bad faith, perhaps to silence unwanted criticism or commentary. But there’s no reason to think that such abuse is the rule and not the exception. Google’s own numbers show that it complied with 97% of notices in 2011 and 99% of notices in 2013. That’s still a potentially-significant amount of abuse from notice-senders, but it’s also certainly a ton of intentional abuse from infringers whose conduct generated the legitimate notices in the first place. And the vast majority of those infringers won’t get so much as a slap on the wrist.

Turning back to Gladstein’s theme, discussions about fair use or takedown abuse are beside the point. The simple fact is that garden-variety copyright infringement involves neither issue. As CPIP Senior Scholar Sean O’Connor testified to Congress, “for many artists and owners the majority of postings are simply straight-on non-transformative copies seeking to evade copyright.” It’s this simple piracy, where entire works are uploaded to the internet for all to take, that concerns copyright owners most. Gladstein cares about the 1.3 million illicit distributions and performances of The Hateful Eight that are obviously infringing, not the commentary of critics that would obviously be fair use. And takedown notices sent because of these illicit uploads are anything but abusive—the abusers are the infringers.

The technology to make notice-and-staydown work already exists. For example, Audible Magic and YouTube both have the technology to create digital fingerprints of copyrighted works. When users later upload these same works to the internet, the digital fingerprints can be matched so that the copyright owner can then control whether to allow, monetize, track, or block the upload altogether. This technology is a great start, but it’s only as good as its availability to copyright owners. The continued proliferation of infringing works on YouTube suggests that this technology isn’t being deployed properly. And Google has no comparable technology available for its search engine, leaving copyright owners with little choice but to continue playing endless whack-a-mole.

Fortunately, the tides have been turning, especially as the technology and content industries continue to merge. And strides are being made in the courts as well. For example, a Court of Appeal in Germany recently held that YouTube has the duty to both take down infringing content and to make sure that it stays down. A quick search of YouTube today shows that The Hateful Eight, which is still in theaters, is legitimately available for pre-order and is illicitly available to be streamed right now. One wonders why YouTube chooses to compete with itself, especially when it has the tool to prevent such unfair competition. Regardless, there is real hope that Gladstein’s call for a “vaccine that could eradicate the disease of content theft” will be just what the doctor ordered—and that “vaccine” is notice-and-staydown.

[Update: This post unintentionally generated confusion as to whether I think notice-and-staydown means that fingerprinting technologies should be used with search engines. I do not think that would work well. I explain how search engines could do more to help copyright owners with the whack-a-mole problem in this follow-up post.]