Recently, a photographer named Jay Lee discovered that a picture he took of Houston was being used all over the Web without his permission or attribution. Lee then did what many other photographers do and began filing takedown notices against that image.
However, what started as a case of simple copyright infringement took a strange turn when one of the sites involved happened to be run by an attorney named Candice Schwager. Schwager, who had all 14 of her domains shut down due to the notice, at least initially believed that the takedown was an attack by political opponents and lashed out at Lee both via email and her blog.
The case has now degenerated to legal threats from Schwager, who, according to her blog, has appointed attorneys to represent her in this matter and plans to sue Lee for libel, harassment and more.
Though the Internet at large seems to be siding with Lee in this matter, even though he has pulled down his posts and asked others to avoid contacting Schwager on his behalf, the case went viral after reaching the front page of Slashdot.
However, through all of this there’s a difficult question that has not been answered. Given that Lee was filing a DMCA notice on just one image on one domain, why were 14 different domains shuttered? The answer lies not with Lee’s notice, but GoDaddy’s insane DMCA policies.
How to Overreact to a DMCA Notice
For hosts, the DMCA is a fairly straightforward concept. In exchange for legal protection from any infringement done by their users, the hosts agree to “expeditiously” remove infringing material when they receive a proper DMCA notice. However, hosts respond to DMCA notices in different ways, ranging from simply ignoring them to, as in the case with GoDaddy, simply shuttering the entire account.
Most hosts, however, try to take at least something of a mediated approach. This usually involves either informing the client and letting them remove the content or surgically removing small infringements themselves. Most will only shutter a whole domain if it’s found that the domain contains a large amount of infringing material or if the user is uncooperative at removing the allegedly infringing material.
In short, it’s rare for a single site to be completely shuttered on the basis of a DMCA notice for one file, let alone 14.
However, GoDaddy’s policy is different. Rather than remove the infringing material or notify the client of the issue, the entire account is suspended, even for an extremely minor infringement. This means that all of the domains on the account, including non-infringing ones, are shuttered pending a resolution to the matter.
This means that one infringing image or one page with infringing material can result in the suspension of an entire network of sites, most of which were unrelated to the infringement.
For the client and DMCA subject, this is an obvious disaster as they can be left scrambling to get back online dozens of sites that were taken down needlessly. However, this also creates significant problems for the filer, who often gets blamed for the excessive disruption and has to work with the subject to try and get the non-infringing sites restored.
Even worse, in many cases GoDaddy will cut off the client’s FTP and backend access (at least as reported to me by subjects of my DMCA notices) preventing the client from removing the infringing material and getting their sites restored.
In short, both filer and client have to scramble to fix a bad situation created by GoDaddy when the situation didn’t have to be anything further than a minor inconvenience.
Why Does GoDaddy Do This?
Though I don’t know for certain why GoDaddy does this and my previous conversations with the host haven’t been particularly enlightening, I suspect it’s just because this is the easiest way for GoDaddy to handle DMCA notices while protecting themselves from liability.
Basically, their entire DMCA policy seems to flow as follows:
- Receive DMCA Notice
- Check That it Seems Valid
- Suspend Account
GoDaddy’s hosting plans start at about $5 per month and, as such a large host, the company likely gets thousands of notices per day. They simply don’t have the motivation to spend any more time keeping a single customer.
If a client who was suspended following a DMCA notice walks away, that’s only a few dollars per month lost. Far less than the cost of what it would take to properly process and handle the case.
However, other shared hosts handle DMCA notices relatively well and other giants, including Hostgator, Dreamhost, etc. don’t have similar policies. This seems to be exclusive to GoDaddy and it appears to be a policy they aren’t eager to change.
My first piece of advice is simple (if extremely uncommon on this site): Do not host with GoDaddy.
If you have to host with GoDaddy, place only one domain on a single account and only put content that you created on the server. Though GoDaddy does “sanity check” the notices it receives, it will not wade into fair use questions either.
This policy is a big part of why I steer all of my friends away from GoDaddy and am in the process of moving the last of the domains I have with the company to another registrar (even though their DMCA policy does NOT affect domains).
Second, if you’re filing a DMCA notice against GoDaddy you should expect this to happen, even if the notice is over something relatively minor.
I also encourage people filing DMCA notices to include a statement that they are only requesting the content listed to be removed and that any further suspensions are the work of the host. It may even be appropriate to include a link to this article or others talking about GoDaddy’s policies.
That way, the recipient of the notice will at least know why all of his or her sites are offline and may be a little less hostile about the closure (at least with the filer).
Of course, this assumes that GoDaddy forwards on the DMCA notice in whole which, as I’ve been told by those I’ve filed against, is not always the case.
To be clear, I don’t think that GoDaddy’s policy is “evil” but I do think it’s sorely misguided and it shows an extreme lack of thought to the security of their clients and the wishes of DMCA filers.
While it makes sense for GoDaddy to protect its interest and find ways to make the DMCA process more efficient and reliable, doing so at the expense of their customers and of the people filing DMCA notices.
While the policy does seem to comply with the letter of the law, it doesn’t comply with the spirit, which was supposed to strike a balance between those who are infringed and those who are accused of doing the infringing.
A good DMCA policy is proportional and shows respect to everyone involved. This is not a good DMCA policy.
But while many hosts have questionable policies, this one is bad enough to make me discourage others from hosting sites there, something that has only happened a few other times and GoDaddy is by far the biggest host I’ve felt this way about.
My hope is that this incident and the attention it has focused on GoDaddy will be enough to push them to reconsider their approach to takedowns, but I’m not terribly optimistic about that.