What Is the Safe Harbor Provision and How Does It Help Me?

If you or your business own a website with a blog, articles, or any other type of content that enables user comments or posts, there are some very real copyright infringement issues that you need to be aware of—even though you yourself have no intention of infringing on anyone else’s rights. What if one of your users has copied and pasted someone else’s copyrighted material onto your website? True, you did not physically perform the infringement yourself—but regardless, the content has ended up on the website that you are responsible for. Who is liable? If you’re not protected by the Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, you are.

Safe Harbor Provision: What It Is

In 1998, the United States implemented the Digital Millennium Copyright Act into Title 17 of the United States Code (the Code dealing with copyright law) as an attempt to keep legislation relevant and applicable to the technology of the times. Title II of the DMCA is called the Online Copyright Infringement Limited Liability Act—otherwise known as the Safe Harbor Provision. This provision limits the liability of an Internet service provider for user-created copyright infringement so that the company itself is not at fault for a random comment someone posts.

However, this limited liability only extends to those online service providers—OSPs—that adhere to certain requirements. (In fact, some companies actively seek out instances of noncompliance with the Safe Harbor requirements for the very purpose of suing those at fault.) It is, to put it mildly, in your best interest to become familiar with these requirements.

How It Works

The premise of the Safe Harbor Act is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a company to effectively screen every post by every user for copyrighted material, and therefore it’s easy to inadvertently host something that’s copyright protected.

But there’s a catch. In order to receive this legal benefit of the doubt, you as an OSP need to make it as easy as possible for the copyright holder to let your company know their material has been improperly reproduced on your website. Essentially, the angry copyright holder needs to be able to find the name and contact information of a person they can complain to whether they look on your website or go to the Copyright Office’s website directly. If the information is missing in either of those two places, you’re leaving yourself open to assume all liability for an infringement that wouldn’t otherwise be your responsibility.

What to Do

First, let the Copyright Office know right away. In order for your website to fall under the Safe Harbor Act, anyone must be able to look either at your copyright infringement policy statement and the Copyright Office’s database of agents and locate the following information:

  • Legal name of your business
  • Alternate or assumed name of your business, if any
  • Name of contact person
  • Physical address of contact person
  • Telephone and fax number of contact person
  • Email address of contact person

Basically, it is your responsibility to make it as easy as possible for the copyright holder to get in touch with your company.

Now What?

If someone finds their copyrighted material improperly posted on your website and you have complied with the requirements of the Safe Harbor Act, here’s what you can expect:

  • Your agent will receive a letter. This letter will tell you the name and URL of the copyrighted material, a statement that that they believe the material is used improperly, and some other legally required information.
  • You will take the material down and notify the person who posted it.
  • The person who originally posted the content, if they do not agree with the claim that they improperly used copyrighted material, can submit a counter notification to you, explaining that the material was mistakenly or improperly removed and that no infringement has taken place.
  • You will notify the person who sent you the takedown notice that the person who posted the material does not agree with the infringement accusation.
  • The copyright holder, at this point, has 14 days to bring a lawsuit to the person they believe infringed on their rights. If they do not, you’re free to put the material back up.

On the other hand, if someone finds their copyrighted material improperly posted on your website and you have not complied with the requirements of the Safe Harbor Act, here’s what you can expect:

  • You will be sued.

Given the options, don’t you think compliance is worth your time?

One small but important caveat: there is very specific information that must be present every step of the way. You can’t simply write something like “Email our webmaster if this website is infringing on your copyright”—while your intentions might help your chances of the infringed-upon giving you a pass, most of the required information for a proper, legally recognized statement of your copyright infringement policy is missing, leaving you open to a lawsuit. Contact us to see how we can help you comply with these requirements. You can also take a look at the DMCA FAQ provided by Chilling Effects.

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