The DMCA on Social News Sites

Previously, I reported about how plagiarized content can create unique challeges on social news sites such as Digg and Reddit.

The article detailed a case involving the site Celebrity Hack, a celebrity gossip blog. The site had one of its articles, entitled “37 Famously Stupid Celebrity Quotes” submitted to Digg only to be buried for unknown reasons. Then, a few weeks later, a lower quality copy was submitted to the site and reached the front page without being buried at all.

It is obvious that, in that case, the traditional notion of social news failed. The usual means of preventing duplicate failed to stop the advancement of the plagiarized story. It would seem that, in that light, there is very little that a site such as Celebrity Hack can do to prevent scraped and plagiarized content from being promoted on social news sites. If the crowd fails to see the duplication and pushes a duplicate article forward, there is little a lone Webmaster or blogger can do.

However, the DMCA may provide the answer to that problem. It gives individuals who have had their content ripped off and posted to social news sites the ability to have those links removed. It can help webmasters mitigate against the damage that such plagiarism can do and even stop thieves before they see any benefit from the stolen work.

Why Digg has a DMCA Policy

The DMCA carves out safe harbor protection for many kinds of online service providers. One of those service providers, found under section 512(d) in Title 17, is what is called an “Information Location Tool”.

The law goes on to define an “information location tool” as one that is:

referring or linking users to an online location containing infringing material or infringing activity, by using information location tools, including a directory, index, reference, pointer, or hypertext link

That section covers search engines such as Google, directories such as DMOZ and any other site that links to Web pages where infringing material may be found.

The law grants those sites safe harbor, meaning they are not liable for the infringement, so long as they have no knowledge of the infringement, remove access to the material once notified and register a DMCA agent with the United States Copyright Office (USCO).

This is one area where the DMCA has done a great deal to assist the development of the Web. By eliminating most of the gray area that existed before the law was passed, the DMCA made sites like Digg easier to found without the fear of being held liable for linking to infringing material. In short, it removed a great risk factor from starting this kind of site.

However, because of this, social news sites have had to develop copyright policies and work to comply with the DMCA. Most larger social news sites have designated DMCA agents and processes in place to handle complaints of copyright infringement.

Here are just a few examples of that.


Format: Email
Email Address: abuse at digg dot com
Location of Policy: Item Five, Terms of Use
Registered with USCO: No
Comments: Overall, Digg’s DMCA policy seems very well-rounded. It offers the necessary links to information for filing both a notice and a counter-notice under the DMCA. However, Digg’s contact information is somewhat lacking. Digg handles all DMCA-related matters through their abuse email address, which is normally the best way to handle such matters, but offers no additional contact information including name, phone number, fax number or physical address. Sites that list their DMCA agents with the United States Copyright Office have to include such information. Digg may need to see about expanding their policy to include this information and formally registering with the USCO.


Format: Email, Fax, Snail Mail
Email Address: copyright at sbandg dot com
Location of Policy: Item Four, User Agreement
Registered with USCO: Yes
Comments: Reddit apparently has taken on the services of the NY law firm Sabin, Bermant & Gould to handle their DMCA notices. It seems likely that the policy was written by them as well. The policy is both succinct and thorough, covering all of the required elements of a DMCA notice and offering multiple means of contact to get in touch with the agents. However, the policy completely lacks any mention of a counter-notice, which is relatively unusual. However, that information may be included in the contacts sent to users that have had DMCA notices filed against them.


Format: Email, Snail Mail
Email Address: dmca at ostg dot com
Location of Policy: Item Thirteen, Terms of Use
Registered with USCO: Yes
Comments: DMCA complaints to Slashdot are handled by their parent company, the Open Source Technology Group. Their policy is very lengthy and covers all of the information needed to both submit a DMCA notice and file a counter-notice. The contact information is complete, though it is unclear if the number listed is a phone or fax number, and the policy itself spells out the steps needed, without referencing other sites. Users unfamiliar with the DMCA will likely find this policy very helpful.


Format: Email, Snail Mail
Email Address: See Form
Location of Policy: Own Page
Registered with USCO: Yes
Comments: Netscape’s policy, which is handled by their parent AOL, is probably the most mature out of all of the copyright policies. Not only do they have a well-written policy that provides all of the needed information to file a DMCA notice, they even provide an easy form to submit it. Lacking from their site is any information about filing a counter-notice, once again, information likely included when notifying a user that has been the subject of a DMCA notice, and a fax number for sending in complaints that way. Still, they have the easiest and most robust policy overall and, in my experience with their Web host, have a very respectable reputation for handling infringing material.


Format: Email?
Email Address: See Form
Location of Policy: None
Registered with USCO: No
Comments: Of all the social networks I looked at, Fark is the only one completely lacking a formal DMCA policy. Though the contact form can be used to ask a “legal question” or report a bad headline, there is no clear place to file an abuse report nor is there an actual policy for receiving DMCA notices on the site. This isn’t the first time Fark’s copyright policy has been questioned, but the first time was easily explained by poor writing and it seems likely that this is also an issue with a poorly-written terms of use. Hopefully, as Fark works on their copyright policy, they will also work on their DMCA policy as well. Otherwise, they risk losing protection under the DMCA safe harbor act.
Update From Fark: I heard back from Drew earlier today, he said that he is going to work with his new attorney on this matter shortly after correcting the current copyright policy, which is now in final draft stage. Hopefully, this matter too will be cleared up easily.


Of all of the DMCA policies I reviewed, Netscape’s procedure was far and away the most robust and the most user-friendly. However, this is understandable as AOL has been a Web host for over a decade and has a lot of experience working with the DMCA. Also, they probably have the largest volume of complaints.

After Netscape, Slashdot and Reddit both have very solid policies, both are registered with the USCO and both provide all of the needed information. They are definitely both excellent role models in this area. Digg is also more than acceptable, however, their lack of registration with the USCO is worrisome since it is a requirement of the DMCA and their safe harbor status may be in jeopardy because of that. However, these are all easy things to fix.

At the bottom, right now, is Fark. Their lack of a formal policy not only puts their safe harbor status at risk, but also, can confuse and hinder anyone reporting links to any infringing material.

However, since I have not worked with any of these companies personally, save AOL, I can not make any judgments on them for the host report, all of this is based purely upon my evaluation of their stated policies and information I have heard from others.

The bottom line, however, is that social news is supposed to be about rewarding people who produce high-quality content. That can’t happen as long as plagiarists are able to steal that content and promote it as their own.

When the crowd fails to catch a thief in time, as will happen sometimes, it is important for a site to have an effective and copyright policy and a strong will to enforce it.

Otherwise, social news sites risk becoming an even darker element of the “echo chamber” that some feel blogs already are.

Note: All of the above networks were contacted for this article and, as of this writing, had not responded. I will update this article should any reply after it is published.

Note 2: This story is in no way related to the HD-DVD story that has consumed Digg over the past 24 hours or so. That story, apparently, did not involve a DMCA notice, but rather a cease and desist letter, and this story was underway well before the HD-DVD controversy began to draw much attention. This was intended to be a follow up to the story mentioned above.