The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) enacted by President Clinton in 1988 was designed to protect online content from digital piracy. The lobbyists who pushed for the DMCA were funded by the music and film industries, but the act serves as a general anti-piracy law. It protects intellectual property on most popular platforms and search engines, making it easier for content creators to ensure their creations are protected.
The DMCA and Safe Harbor
The various stakeholders who crafted the DMCA were concerned not just with protecting intellectual property but also with balancing the need to prevent piracy against civil rights and the potential for growth online. That’s part of why it provides what’s known as a “safe harbor” provision. This provision protects platforms from prosecution provided they follow the guidelines set out by the DMCA.
The safe harbor provision means that websites are only required to remove content if they receive official notification that it violates the DMCA. If the copyright holder files a take-down notice, the website must remove the content promptly but will not face legal action for copyright infringement.
Zero-Knowledge and the DMCA
To comply with the safe harbor provision of the DMCA, platforms must not be aware that the content they are hosting violates copyright laws. That’s why many websites do not have screening processes for the content uploaded by their users. Storage sites known as zero-knowledge providers go one step further and allow users to keep encryption keys so the site managers have no way to access the content being stored by users.
Fair Use Provisions
In some cases, copyrighted material can be used legally in a limited capacity without permission. This includes using quotes or movie clips in reviews or other forms of commentary or pulling individual frames from movies to use in memes or art projects.
Creators who believe they are within their right to use copyrighted material may still receive take-down notices from hosts or platforms but they can contest them by filing a counter-notice. Unfortunately, this can open the door to court proceedings, which can be expensive for individual creators who don’t have the legal and monetary backing that large studios with deep pockets enjoy.