According to the DMCA (PDF), a United States-based Web host “must have filed with the Copyright Office a designation of an agent to receive notifications of claimed infringement” in order to ensure that they can not be held liable for copyright infringement perpetrated by their users.
However, despite the potential consequences for not filing such a notice, use of the system has been very limited. Even though most major Web hosts are present (including Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Myspace, Photobucket, etc.), most smaller ones are not.
This has made the USCO’s list of DMCA agents an unreliable source of information and, in some cases, an outright waste of time.
The USCO’s list of designated agents was supposed to be a one-stop clearinghouse for information on DMCA agents across the country. It was supposed to save copyright holders time by making it easy to find the agent that they needed and hosts time by ensuring that notices went to the correct individuals.
However, the directory has been mired in problems. The USCO, notoriously overworked and understaffed, has been very slow to post new forms that have been filed. They are equally slow to update old ones and this has contributed to severe decay in the quality and usefulness of the directory.
Another issue has been a lack of cooperation from hosts themselves. With no clear penalties for not cooperating, just hypothetical ones, many hosts simply decided not to apply. Even more hosts hosts, often unaware of the safe harbor provision of the DMCA, have not applied because they don’t realize that they have any obligation to do so.
Simply put, even though compliance is completely free and takes only a few minutes, many have either not applied or are simply not keeping their information up to date.
This has caused the quality of information on the USCO’s site to decay steadily, to the point now where it is virtually useless as a one-stop shop for DMCA agent information.
None of this is to say that hosts are uncooperative with copyright-related matters. Most are at least responsive. However, they are not taking advantage of the USCO’s list and, instead, are opting to post the information on their own site.
These copyright policy pages are nothing new, most of the major search engines including Google and Yahoo have one. What is new is that these pages were generally used in conjunction with the USCO’s list, not in lieu of it.
While this does seem to violate the letter of the DMCA, it does seem to keep with the spirit of it. Since most look to the host for contact information before turning the the USCO, it makes sense to have it prominently displayed on the site.
However, those who do use the USCO’s site, such as myself, have become frustrated with missing and out of date information. Though these matters can be corrected quickly, days can be wasted on a response or resolution that simply isn’t coming.
While many of these issues could be avoided if hosts would work to keep their DMCA information either up-to-date or at least ensure that their information on the USCO site was valid, the bigger problem is clear: The USCO list is practically dead and it’s dead because hosts, for various reasons, are not keeping it complete or up to date.
How one feels about this will, likely, depend on whether or not they used or even knew about the USCO’s list before this article. Those who were accustomed to relying on the information provided will be frustrated but most will hardly notice the difference.
The bottom line is that copyright holders need to adapt to rummaging through hosts terms of service pages for copyright information. This may be inefficient for most cases, but, if records are kept properly, it only needs to be done once per host.
Also, it’s not as if the USCO’s site was the model of efficiency. Poor organization, redundant forms, lack of a search feature and image-only PDFs that prevented copying made the site a kludge to use. Still, it may be necessary for hosts that don’t post their information elsewhere online.
In the end though, a strange combination of information provided by hosts and the USCO may be the only way to locate DMCA agents. Though the DMCA was supposed to reduce or eliminate the legwork in tracking down the appropriate person at a host, it’s actually done quite the opposite. Anyone who can remember just filing an abuse complaint for matters of copyright infringement will tell you that the complexity has escalated significantly since just a few years ago.
Until another, more usable database is created, it seems as if the current system is the only alternative available.
It’s sad and frustrating, but a way of life. At least for the moment.