WordPress owner Automattic has scored a notable court victory over disingenuous copyright takedown notices, one that could set a precedent for future cases.
The case in question relates to U.K.-based Oliver Hotham, a journalist and blogger who in 2013 published an interview (since taken offline) with an anti gay-rights group called Straight Pride U.K. The organization had answered some of Hotham’s questions and, after the article gained a fair bit of traction through the likes of Reddit, Straight Pride U.K.’s press officer evidently decided that he didn’t want their controversial views to be known and requested that the article be removed.
While Hotham refused to delete the article, Straight Pride U.K. filed a takedown notice with Automattic, which was obliged to remove the WordPress.com-hosted piece based on claims that it infringed on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a U.S. law designed to protect copyright in the digital age. The law pretty much relies on the good faith of copyright owners, as Automattic isn’t able to verify each and every case itself — but this means that it’s open to abuse, and if someone doesn’t like something that exists online, they can file a DMCA takedown notice with the content host (in this case WordPress). Yes, it can be used as a backhanded way of enforcing censorship.
In November 2013, Automattic announced it was striking back against this practice by filing two lawsuits against two separate parties for fraudulently issuing DMCA takedown notices directed at content hosted on WordPress.com. One of these lawsuits was aimed at Nick Steiner, Straight Pride U.K.’s so-called press officer. Given that Automattic is headquartered in the U.S., and the law in question only applies to the U.S. anyway, Automattic had to file the suit in California, rather than the U.K. where the defendant (and main plaintiff) were based.
United States District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton has now issued her ruling [PDF], as reported by Ars Technica, awarding Hotham $960 for “work and time,” $1,800 to Automattic’s employees for “time spent,” and $22,264 to cover Automattic’s attorney fees. So that’s north of $25,000 Steiner will have to cough up, in theory at least. Steiner has been untraceable, and the main Straight Pride U.K. site is no longer active, so garnering the funds could prove tricky. As Judge Hamilton wrote,
The report and recommendation was filed on October 6, 2014. During the intervening time, plaintiffs Automattic, Inc. (“Automattic”) and Oliver Hotham (“Hotham”) have been attempting to serve defendant Nick Steiner (who resides in the United Kingdom) with a copy of the report and recommendation, but have to date been unsuccessful.
However, Automattic has plenty of cash, so it probably doesn’t care too much about reclaiming fees. The significance of this case is less about the money than it is a warning to those considering meritless DMCA takedown notices for content they simply don’t like on the Internet. “Good laws become bad when people abuse them,” said Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg. And this was always the main purpose of pursuing this case — to stop people abusing a well-meaning law.
“We tried to track down Nick Steiner, but didn’t succeed,” said Paul Sieminski, general counsel at Automattic, in a statement to VentureBeat. “We’re disappointed by that and by the fact that he’ll probably never pay the judgment. So DMCA abuse may go unpunished this time. But, we’re heartened that our case makes some good new law for future cases. There’s very little case law in this area, and previously *no* case law about what damages were available if a plaintiff were to win. It’s important here that the court held that we could recover attorneys’ fees and costs of suit, which were by far the biggest piece of damages.”
Moving forward, Sieminski tells VentureBeat that it doesn’t have any immediate plans to pursue other cases due to the required resources.
“We wanted to see how these cases played out first,” he said. “The lawsuits were very time consuming and expensive to bring, and Automattic will likely never collect on the judgment. This case also sets the precedent that Automattic will stand up for our users, and fight back against DMCA abuse. Hopefully that, along with the rule that victims can collect damages (especially costly attorney’s fees), may cause future DMCA abusers to think twice before they pull the same stunt.”