At the end of 2018, a funny story happened to SpicyIP, a popular Indian legal blog in the field of copyright protection. They unexpectedly received a notice from Google about DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) violation, which in fact was not true.
The appeal came from Saregama India Pvt. Ltd. – a large audio recording label. The company gave Google more than 7 hundred URLs, where the audio files owned by it were illegally uploaded. One of the SpicyIP pages, which had none of audio files on it, was accidentally added to this list. The page, as a result, has been removed from the search engine index.
Fortunately, the authors of the blog are professional lawyers who have already had experience in solving such situations. They rapidly and competently made a response complaint. Consequently, their content quickly returned to search results.
“Yet, had it happened to a non-lawyer, or even someone who had ceased to take interest in their old blog, as it often does, it would result in the permanent removal of public information from an index which serves as the gateway to the internet, due to the ‘mistakes’ of private parties whose interests do not coincide with public access,” one of SpicyIP authors warns in his article.
What does DMCA mean, why should site owners worry about this law and how to protect against possible complaints? Let's see.
What is DMCA?
Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a law passed in 1998 that supplements US law in the field of copyright protection. Its full text can be found here. The law puts responsibility for:
- direct copyright infringement by copying protected materials;
- the creation and distribution of technical resources to avoid this protection;
- copyright infringement on the Internet.
At the same time, the law protects Internet providers from liability for violations committed by their users, in case the provider complies with the requirements set out in paragraph 512 of DMCA.
A similar directive, adopted in 2001, operates in the European Union too.
Why is it important for the site owners?
You might be interested in why should we pay attention to the US law in our country? The situation becomes clearer if we recall that Google, the most popular search engine in Ukraine and in the world, is in the legal field of the US. The company has been actively implementing DMCA requirements for a long time by developing a system of complaints about content that infringes copyright.
Copyright holders around the world can send claims in a written form, through a special online form for webmasters or using the "Remove content from Google" tool. The claim must contain all the necessary components specified in the paragraph 512(c)(3) of DMCA:
- links to pages where infringing content is posted;
- search queries in Google that link to these pages;
- contact details for communication with the right holder, etc.
If the complaint is formed correctly and legitimate, then, after its checking, Google will remove the indicated links from its search results. The notification showing that access to materials are blocked due to copyright infringement would be shown instead of that links. Google search is the main source of traffic for many sites, so such blocking can seriously hit the traffic and profitability of a web resource, even if it affects only a few important pages.
It is important to note that Google always notifies the site owner about the removal of his links from search results. Therefore, you will not be ignorant – unless you registered your resource in Search Console and regularly follow the email attached to it. You can also check for claims with your site in Lumen Database – an independent resource that collects information about copyright infringements. To do this, enter the domain name in the search box, and the system will display all the claims associated with it.
Do not think that if you post content only on the legal grounds and take care to not violate any copyrights, your website will never be able to receive a complaint. This is evidenced by the example we gave at the beginning of the article and by global statistics: Techdirt publishes that 99.95% of all requests to Google about copyright infringement are generated by robots and contain URLs that are either not present in search results or were already removed by previous applications. More "fresh" data can be found in another article: it shows that the largest copyright holders, such as Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), are the most active senders of automatic unverified claims.
Considering the scope of sending claims, it is not surprising that so many URLs, which did not violate anything, could get there by mistake. On the other hand, Google’s employees who check complaints are not immune to mistakes too. That is why you need to be prepared for blocking of your URLs.
How your competitors can use DMCA
Blocking the content in Google, which does not infringe copyrights, may not only be the result of a accident:unscrupulous competitors may try to remove your pages from the search results. Just look at the example below: these are search results in Lumen Database on the domain name of some Ukrainian company. More than 50 disparate, usually unsubstantiated complaints, with each of them containing reference to 1-2 photos and made from the name of various rightholders – it's most likely the competitors' work.
The algorithm of actions here is quite simple: some company searches for images from the site of its competitor. If any image is found on a third-party site, then this company makes a claim to Google allegedly on behalf of this third party. The probability that the complaint will be accepted is not so small, especially if the appealed site really stole the photo. Therefore, this kind of black SEO tactics gives its results.
Example from our practice
For clarity, we give an example that we encountered while working with an online store website. We received the following email notification from Google:
As it turned out, the appeal came from a popular brand that this store was selling, and it concerned the use of a number of product pictures taken from the official website of the brand. The claim was accepted, and the pages associated with this brand disappeared from the search engine index, as evidenced by a drop in traffic on the corresponding branded queries:
The response claim was promptly sent with the participation of a lawyer (for sending you need to use the link underlined in the first screenshot). Google successfully reviewed the complaint and returned all the links to the search results, since the store is the official reseller of the brand and had the right to use its pictures. However, it took a long time to recover the traffic:
This case emphasizes how important it is to always follow Google's notifications and respond to them as quickly as it possible.
Best Practices: how to minimize damage from copyright claims
- First, always follow the copyright compliance. The best option is to publish your own, original, unique content. This also applies to texts, and all sorts of multimedia content: images, audio and video.
- Of course, the ability to post only unique content is not always available. Therefore, using third-party content, follow the rules:
- the materials, licensed Creative Commons Zero (CC0), would be suitable for free unlimited use, for example, most of the images from free photo stocks;
- if the content license permits its free use, but with the obligatory indication of authorship, then do not forget to make the appropriate note;
- if you cooperate with any company and want to use materials from their website, then notify them about it and ask for permissions to avoid situations similar to the one described in the example above;
- in other cases, if it is not possible to use the free content, get the right to publish needed files from their owner.
- Be sure to register your site on Search Console, if you have not already done so. In addition, monitor the email linked to your account: you will receive not only DMCA claims, but also messages about problems with your site indexing, with mobile-friendliness and much more.
- Collaborate with lawyers. For any large enough business, it will be good practice to have if not your own full-time lawyer, then to contact with an outside specialist or company who can promptly advise on copyright issues, assist in drafting a response letter to Google, etc.
Instead of a conclusion, let's remember that it is important not only to monitor the copyright complaints about your content. If you are the owner of copyrighted content and you have noticed an infringement of your rights on the web, then you can and should use Google's complaint system to report this – because it was created for this purpose.