After courtroom wins in copyright cases by YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) and the now-defunct Veoh, copyright holders who don’t submit proper takedown notices are getting less and less traction in courts. Take for example a recent decision in Wolk v. Eastman Kodak et al., a case where Sheila Wolk, a visual artist, sued Photobucket and its partner Kodak, alleging that her copyrighted illustrations were uploaded to the photo-sharing network without her permission. In a relatively short decision, a judge found that Photobucket is protected by the “safe harbor” of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and therefore can’t be sued for copyright damages.
Wolk, an artist pursuing the case on her own, probably wasn’t the toughest opponent for Photobucket and Kodak. But the fact that Photobucket was found to easily fit into the “safe harbor” provided by the DMCA suggests that the path for internet companies to stay safe from copyright allegations is getting clearer in the wake of recent major decisions, such as the YouTube case. “Its routine nature makes the ruling remarkable,” notes Santa Clara Law Prof. Eric Goldman, who wrote about the case on his blog.
This order by U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet includes plenty of citations to the Viacom (NYSE: VIA) v. YouTube decision, as well as the two cases brought against Veoh, a video sharing service that won major copyright cases against Universal Music Group and Io Group but ultimately went bankrupt. As these types of cases pile up, judges and lawyers will increasingly look to those services’ business practices as guidelines on how to run online services without running afoul of copyright law.
Photobucket followed a few simple steps to keep itself in the clear. First and foremost, it promptly responded to takedown notices from Wolk when they included specific URLs of the infringing work. Like other copyright holders, Wolk tried to insist that once she told Photobucket about the problem the company should police its site on its own, but the judge ruled that didn’t cut it-specific URLs were needed. Photobucket has accepted over 8 billion uploaded photos, and it can’t be responsible for screening itself when only copyright owners themselves know when their work has been infringed. The site also took other legally required actions, like terminating users who repeatedly broke copyright rules, having a registered DMCA agent, and other formalities.
The decision is only a rejection of a preliminary injunction, so the lawsuit is still technically ongoing. But now that Photobucket has been found to be protected by the DMCA safe harbor, there won’t be any way for Wolk to collect any monetary damages, so she’s very limited in the type of relief she could seek.