Automattic, the company behind blogging site WordPress.com, has won a symbolic but important victory against censorship under the guise of copyright enforcement. Last week, a California court ordered defunct political group Straight Pride UK to pay around $25,000 for telling WordPress.com to take down an interview with a student journalist, falsely claiming to hold a copyright on the material. While the group has apparently all but disappeared, it's a strike against an unfortunately common tactic: abusing automated takedown systems in order to make bad press go away.
In 2013, writer Oliver Hotham contacted Straight Pride UK, whose attempts to "raise awareness of being straight, and being PROUD to be heterosexual" had been covered by BuzzFeed earlier in the year. Hotham described himself as a freelance journalist and asked questions via email, publishing the responses on his WordPress blog. After the post began to gain traction (and negative attention), though, the group told Hotham that Straight Pride UK had not consented to have the email published. Then, he filed a DMCA takedown notice, saying Hotham had infringed on its copyright. "Within a few days WordPress caved to them without question, removing my article and telling me if I tried to publish it again I'd be suspended," he wrote in a followup post.
Because of the volume of posted material and takedown requests, most major platforms (like WordPress, YouTube, or Google Search) use either automated systems or ones with minimal oversight. This makes DMCA notices a tempting way to suppress criticism or unflattering details — it's particularly identified with the Church of Scientology, which is thought to have sent thousands of takedown notices for YouTube videos and accounts. Users can challenge takedowns and have content reinstated or go to court, but Hotham wrote that he didn't have the time or money to deal with a potential legal fight.
Company hopes people will "think twice" about abusing the DMCA takedown system
A few months later, though, Hotham's case became part of Automattic's attempt to strike back against DMCA abuse. The company filed two complaints: one against a person who had plagiarized and then filed a complaint against the research watchdog site Retraction Watch, and one against Straight Pride UK press officer Nick Steiner. The case against Steiner noted that Hotham had clearly identified himself as a journalist when requesting an interview and that the reply was marked "press statement," indicating a public release. Hotham was also publishing excerpts of the interview specifically to criticize and comment on them, something that the "fair use" copyright exemption explicitly protects. "While there are no legal consequences (like fines) under the DMCA for copyright abusers, there is a provision that allows victims of censorship (and their web hosts) to bring legal action against those who submit fraudulent DMCA notices," wrote Automattic. The courts agreed, awarding Hotham and Automattic attorney's fees as well as damages for the time and work wasted on a false claim.
It's unlikely that they'll ever see this money. Straight Pride UK quickly went dark, and Steiner couldn't be found and served with a complaint. This is still a better outcome than the Retraction Watch case, which was dismissed after Automattic couldn't find the defendant, who lived in India. "If you have any leads about what 'Nick Steiner' is up to — hit me up," quipped Hotham on Twitter.
Automattic, though, says it's a signal that there are real legal consequences for taking advantage of the copyright enforcement system. "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," said general counsel Paul Sieminski in a statement. "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."
Correction, March 9th 1:20pm ET: Automattic is behind the site WordPress.com, not the open-source WordPress blogging platform.