Automattic, the company behind the popular WordPress blogging platform, has faced a dramatic increase in DMCA takedown notices in recent years.
Most requests are legitimate and indeed targeted at pirated content. However, there are also cases where the takedown process is clearly being abused.
To curb these fraudulent notices WordPress decided to take a stand in court, together with student journalist Oliver Hotham who had one of his articles on WordPress censored by a false takedown notice.
Hotham wrote an article about “Straight Pride UK” which included a comment he received from the organization’s press officer Nick Steiner. The latter didn’t like the article Hotham wrote, and after publication Steiner sent WordPress a takedown notice claiming that it infringed his copyrights.
WordPress and Hotham took the case to a California federal court where they asked to be compensated for the damage this abuse caused them.
The case is one of the rare instances where a service provider has taken action against DMCA abuse. The defendant, however, failed to respond in court which prompted WordPress to file a motion for default judgment.
The company argued that as an online service provider it faces overwhelming and crippling copyright liability if it fails to take down content. People such as Steiner abuse this weakness to censor critics or competitors.
“Steiner’s fraudulent takedown notice forced WordPress to take down Hotham’s post under threat of losing the protection of the DMCA safe harbor,” WordPress argued.
“Steiner did not do this to protect any legitimate intellectual property interest, but in an attempt to censor Hotham’s lawful expression critical of Straight Pride UK. He forced WordPress to delete perfectly lawful content from its website. As a result, WordPress has suffered damage to its reputation,” the company added.
After reviewing the case United States Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero wrote a report and recommendation in favor of WordPress and Hotham (pdf), and District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton issued a default judgment this week.
“The court finds the report correct, well-reasoned and thorough, and adopts it in every respect,” Judge Hamilton writes (pdf).
“It is Ordered and Adjudged that defendant Nick Steiner pay damages in the amount of $960.00 for Hotham’s work and time, $1,860.00 for time spent by Automattic’s employees, and $22,264.00 for Automattic’s attorney’s fees, for a total award of $25,084.00.”
The case is mostly a symbolic win, but an important one. It should serve as a clear signal to other copyright holders that false DMCA takedown requests are not always left unpunished.