The Need to Modernize the DMCA Agent List

Previously on this site, I’ve talked about how the DMCA agent list suffers from decay and is slipping into antiquity. Already, I only reference the U.S. Copyright Office’s list when the information isn’t readily available on the host’s Web site due both to hosts who haven’t registered with the USCO and hosts who haven’t maintained their information on the USCO site.

But while hosts definitely bear at least some of the responsibility for the antiquated DMCA list, the USCO needs to take some of the blame as well. There are many ways they could have constructed and operated this list, almost all of them acceptable, but instead they chose to do it almost the worst way possible.

In typical government fashion, the USCO created the list in a way that is costly to hosts, increases the amount of work involved on everyone’s part and completely strips the list of any usefulness to users. For a list created to comply with a law designed to keep up with technology, the methods of maintenance are nothing short of obsolete.

The entire list is a waste of resources and it is time for it to either be fixed or done away with. The current setup is simply not acceptable, even by the standards of the USCO.

It’s time for a change and, fortunately, there are at least two ways that the list can be fixed.

How It’s Done Right Now

Currently, if you’re a host wanting to protect yourself under the DMCA Safe Harbor provisions and thus register your designated DMCA agent. You have to visit the USCO’s Web site, download a simple one-page form (PDF), fill it out and send it in with an $80 fee to the USCO.

Once the USCO receives the file, after a few weeks, they will scan your form as an image PDF and upload it to their list, which is in alphabetical order and display it in a long list with the other forms they’ve received. Users are then free to come along, download your respective PDF and contact you regarding DMCA issues.

If this sounds very simple, that’s because it is. The system used to maintain the DMCA agent list is, quite literally, the most simple system imaginable. This system, as one could imagine, took almost no time to set up or develop and would have been ready to go within minutes.

However, this apparent desire to get the system up and running as quickly as possible has created a model of inefficiency. The adage of “haste makes waste” could not be better illustrated than by the USCO with its DMCA agent list.

Problems with the System

When looking at reasons the system needs changing, consider the following issues:

  1. Difficulties Updating: Though it might make sense for a host to have to send in their first registration via mail, changes to the that information go through the same process, including the same form, the $80 fee and the lengthy delay. This motivates hosts not to update their information and leave outdated material on the USCO site for weeks or months at a time.
  2. Usability: The current DMCA agent list is not search able, not indexable and completely useless for anything other than one-time checks. As the list grows, it gets harder and harder to find the host that you need, especially since many hosts register under multiple names.
  3. Inefficiency: Though it might have been quicker and easier for the USCO to set up this system in the beginning, as the list has grown, it is getting harder and harder to maintain and, since they have to process every single application by hand, rather than letting hosts maintain their information, they are spending much more labor on this than necessary.
  4. Expensive: The $80 fee is simply not justifiable. Under the DMCA hosts are required to register with the USCO if they want to obtain safe harbor protections. Eighty dollars is not only almost double what the optional standard copyright registration costs, but significantly less is obtained for the money. There is no certificate of registration, no search able index of the work, nothing. Just a scanned form available on its site, it is borderline blackmail.
  5. Accessibility: Finally, since the USCO decided to use image PDFs, the content in the scanned forms can not be copied/pasted and, worst of all, is not accessible to those who use screen readers, namely the visually impaired. This may even violate Federal accessibility standards. There are reasons to obfuscate the email address, but other information should be stored in clear text. It is a shame that the private sector is having to go through and deal with this problem.

All in all, there is very little to like about the current system. In the age of MySQL databases and powerful search engines, the technology has moved well beyond what the USCO has employed.

However, the system can be fixed and there are at least two ways to do it, one is easy, the other much more difficult, but would at least bring the DMCA agent list into the 21st century.

Fixing What’s Wrong

The easiest way to fix the broken system is to simply do away with it and re-write the DMCA so that hosts no longer need to register with the USCO but, instead, need to post the information on their own site. It would be no different than the privacy policy, terms of service and other pertinent legal information that hosts are required or asked to display on their home pages.

While that would eliminate the central repository of contact information and the usefulness it could provide, most of the time it simply isn’t necessary. When one looks up the host of a site, they usually, at some point, wind up at the host’s home page and it is much easier to look for the information there than to visit the USCO and hunt through their lists. Since the vast majority of hosts already provide this information without any obligation to do so, it would be almost painless to them and almost painless to your average user.

The other alternative is to keep the list but modernize it. Such a list would use a true database and allow hosts to submit and maintain their own information. This would involve a lot of work. First, it would require converting all of these images into clear text, then it would necessitate confirming the identity of hosts and then providing them with login credentials.

Would this be difficult and time consuming? Yes. But there are systems capable of handling this type of problem already and it would only be a matter of taking an existing system and reapplying it to fill your needs. Even more damming is that, the longer the USCO waits, the more effort it is going to take.

However, no matter how long the effort takes or how much money is required, it will be, in the long run, more efficient to modernize the list than to leave it as it is. Right now the system wastes the time and effort of the USCO, hosts and users alike. A new system could easily streamline the process for all three, saving everyone involved both money and time.

Conclusions

Of course, pushing the USCO toward change is a slow process. The Copyright Office is just now beta testing Internet copyright registrations and such a system is not likely to take advantage of features such as RSS feeds and other technologies that would allow for nearly instant registration.

In the end, it appears that the problem with the USCO is the USCO itself. The entire organization is hopelessly behind the times, with a registration system that penalizes bloggers and hurts all copyright holders, the USCO is a government entity stuck in the mindset of a books and CDs generation when we’re living in a blogs and MP3s world.

I have called for the closure of the USCO before but their incompetence at handling something as simple as a list only furthers those calls. The U.S. is hopelessly behind the times when it comes to copyright law and the USCO is the embodiment of that problem.

If we are going to catch up with the world and have our laws catch up with technology, we first have to remove the dead weight. That can start with either ridding ourselves of much of the USCO’s function or, at the very least, modernizing it properly.

If our copyright system can not keep up, we will, inevitably, fall behind in very severe ways.

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