Yesterday, a group of copyright holders and musicians joined the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and other music industry entities in a letter to Congress, asking it to upend one of the legal cornerstones of the Internet.
That cornerstone, Section 512 of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, is something that DisCo has covered frequently over the years (, ). Enacted in the last major revision of the Copyright Act, the Section 512 “safe harbor” represents a compromise between copyright holders and online services that has allowed the Internet to become what it is today — a worldwide democratizing platform for communication, creativity, and commerce. Under the Section 512 safe harbor, online services aren’t held responsible for alleged copyright infringement by their users, provided that services quickly take down content in response to specific complaints about infringing works on their service. In exchange, rightsholders can rapidly suppress allegedly infringing online content in an extrajudicial manner, without resorting to courts. On some larger platforms, rightsholders get relief in a matter of hours.
Because of the DMCA, individual creators can utilize online services to reach a worldwide audience with their art. In the pre-Internet era, an artist seeking a worldwide audience had to persuade gatekeepers to admit them. Without the blessings of studios, labels, or publishers, an aspiring creator had little hope of reaching beyond their immediate community.
The Internet changed that, but only because online platforms had legal certainty. Without Section 512, online services would have risked multimillion-dollar infringement liability each time an aspiring musician or filmmaker shared their works with the world. Each one of the billions of videos, images, and songs uploaded by users might bring financial ruin. Section 512 created an environment where service providers who responded quickly to complaints could still provide a platform to millions of users’ voices.