By Ari Lip­sitz1

When the excep­tions and carve­outs of the Copy­right Act con­flict with each oth­er, the effect can be akin to an orches­tra and a zyde­co band play­ing on oppo­site sides of the same room — with lit­i­gants in the mid­dle, try­ing to process the unpleas­ant­ness while they tip­toe toward the exit. Nowhere is the statu­to­ry headache more promi­nent than in the cacoph­o­nous inter­ac­tion of two byzan­tine frame­works: the copy­righta­bil­i­ty of sound record­ings and the lia­bil­i­ty rules for online infringe­ment. The noise threat­ens to emp­ty the room of cre­ators and audi­ences and open the door to forces that dwell in the discord.

The Copy­right Act allows for cer­tain online ser­vice providers to claim a “safe har­bor” for host­ing poten­tial­ly infring­ing mate­r­i­al at the direc­tion of their users. The safe har­bor grants legal pre­dictabil­i­ty to the vari­ety and scale of online ser­vices that rely on copy­right­ed mate­r­i­al and seeks to avoid dis­suad­ing invest­ment in either inno­v­a­tive tech­nol­o­gy or cre­ative works. The issue is whether this safe har­bor, enact­ed as 17 U.S.C. § 512(c), applies against mate­r­i­al that fed­er­al copy­right law express­ly leaves to the states. This is usu­al­ly not a prob­lem; the pre­emp­tion pro­vi­sions of the Copy­right Act of 1976 near­ly cov­er the field—but only near­ly. The Act has nev­er pro­tect­ed any sound record­ing cre­at­ed before 1972, and so a ques­tion per­sists as to whether those record­ings are sim­i­lar­ly beyond the refuge of the safe harbor.

In Capi­tol Records v. Vimeo, the Sec­ond Cir­cuit sought to rec­on­cile this ten­sion between the Copy­right Act’s pre­emp­tion rules for pre-1972 sound record­ings and the “safe har­bors” for cer­tain inter­net actors host­ing poten­tial­ly infring­ing mate­r­i­al.2 Vimeo held that, notwith­stand­ing the exclu­sion of pre-1972 sound record­ings from fed­er­al copy­right, the safe har­bor frame­work estab­lished a “tiny excep­tion” to the rules.3 This way, ser­vice providers fac­ing lia­bil­i­ty for user-direct­ed infringe­ment of pre-1972 sound record­ings can raise the applic­a­ble safe harbor—even as the own­ers of those record­ings can­not not claim rights under fed­er­al copy­right law. The court rec­og­nized that dis­al­low­ing the safe har­bor for one sliv­er of pro­tect­ed expres­sion risks alter­ing the eco­nom­ic com­pro­mise that Con­gress struck. This result is a sen­si­ble pol­i­cy out­come. But nonethe­less, the con­clu­sion is wrong. The Copy­right Act does not favor the Sec­ond Circuit’s “tiny excep­tion” to the pre­emp­tion rule: the text of the safe har­bor can be fair­ly read as ambigu­ous, while the rights-based struc­ture of the Act cuts against an exception.

This Con­tri­bu­tion pro­ceeds in three parts. It begins by dis­cussing the statu­to­ry con­flict between the pre­emp­tion rules for pre-1972 sound record­ings and the Dig­i­tal Mil­len­ni­um Copy­right Act (“DMCA”) safe har­bor. It then reviews var­i­ous judi­cial approach­es to the prob­lem, focus­ing on the Sec­ond Circuit’s deci­sion in Vimeo. Final­ly, it seeks to mod­el the effect of the issue on online invest­ment and lit­i­ga­tion incen­tives. If leg­isla­tive reform is always slight­ly to the side of the table—the next major revi­sion to the Copy­right Act is unlike­ly to come along any­time soon—courts must fil­ter through the dis­so­nance between sound record­ings and online lia­bil­i­ty. Choos­ing which regime must bow to the oth­er has sub­stan­tial con­se­quences for the next steps of cre­ators, tech­nol­o­gists and consumers.

* * * * *

Part One. The Statu­to­ry Conflict.

There is an unavoid­able ten­sion between the fol­low­ing attrib­ut­es of Amer­i­can copy­right law:

(1) Fed­er­al copy­right does not pro­tect sound record­ings fixed before Feb­ru­ary 15, 1972, and can­not lim­it any state rights or reme­dies in those record­ings.4

(2) Fed­er­al copy­right estab­lish­es a set of “safe har­bors” for cer­tain online actors. The most impor­tant safe har­bor appears in sec­tion 512(c) of the Act and lim­its the lia­bil­i­ty of com­ply­ing ser­vice providers for “infringe­ment of copy­right” at the direc­tion of their users.5

Note the dis­so­nance: if fed­er­al copy­right is entire­ly inap­plic­a­ble to any pro­tec­tion over pre-1972 sound record­ings, then it is a rea­son­able infer­ence that the sec­tion 512(c) safe har­bor, which is incor­po­rat­ed with­in the fed­er­al copy­right regime, also excludes those works. This is what a coali­tion of record labels attempt­ed to argue against a video plat­form in Capi­tol Records v. Vimeo.6 But then, there might be good rea­sons to pre­fer a uni­form sys­tem of inter­net rules. Carv­ing out a par­tic­u­lar sliv­er of online media from a blan­ket immu­ni­ty pro­vi­sion would cut against the DMCA’s bal­ance of roles—service providers could claim immu­ni­ty for most con­tent but would have to work par­tic­u­lar­ly hard to make sure pre-1972 sound record­ings don’t appear on their ser­vices. Those spe­cial mon­i­tor­ing effects are not con­tem­plat­ed by the statute and may even be fore­closed by it.7 A spe­cial carve­out could break the DMCA. This is what the video plat­form in Vimeo argued back, and what the Sec­ond Cir­cuit held to be the cor­rect read­ing.8

If you believe in a com­pre­hen­sive­ly ratio­nal copy­right sys­tem (and my sym­pa­thies if you do), nei­ther of these two posi­tions is too com­pelling. But beyond copy­right coher­ence for the sake of copy­right coher­ence, the dis­pute pos­es mate­r­i­al prob­lems for copy­right own­ers and inter­net com­pa­nies. Mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult, both doc­tri­nal frame­works — copy­right pre­emp­tion and online lia­bil­i­ty — are con­vo­lut­ed enough indi­vid­u­al­ly. Before wad­ing into the col­li­sion, it will help to detail each frame­work in turn.

* * * * * *

Sound record­ings are a rel­a­tive­ly recent addi­tion to fed­er­al copy­right law. As a result of the heat­ed rival­ry between the record­ing indus­try and the radio indus­try, fed­er­al law failed to reg­u­late sound record­ings until 1972. Over the decades, a patch­work of state law pro­tec­tion arose and filled the space.9 When Con­gress grant­ed pro­tec­tion to sound record­ings for the first time in the windup to the com­pre­hen­sive Copy­right Act of 1976, it did not do so retroac­tive­ly. It accord­ing­ly left in place state law pro­tec­tion “sound record­ings fixed before Feb­ru­ary 15, 1972.”10 Under sec­tion 301(c), state copy­right in those record­ings may endure until 2067, after which all pre-1972 sound record­ings fall into the pub­lic domain at once.11

This is a spe­cial pre­emp­tion rule and should be under­stood against the Act’s gen­er­al pre­emp­tion pro­vi­sion, which fore­clos­es any state pro­tec­tion of sub­ject mat­ter with­in the reach of the Act rough­ly equiv­a­lent to the text’s “exclu­sive rights” — retroac­tive or oth­er­wise.12 It is the only pre­emp­tion rule con­di­tioned on a time threshold.

The time bar for fed­er­al pro­tec­tion of sound record­ings means that the exclu­sive source of copy­right pro­tec­tion for pre-1972 sound record­ings (and only pre-1972 sound record­ings) in the Unit­ed States remains state law copy­right.13 Sec­tion 301(c) engi­neers a dis­tinc­tion that the Copy­right Office, per­haps over­ly opti­misti­cal­ly, called the “sin­gle incon­sis­ten­cy in what was intend­ed to be a seam­less nation­al sys­tem of copy­right pro­tec­tion.”14 This dis­tinc­tion may not make com­plete sense, nor does it have a sat­is­fy­ing his­tor­i­cal basis; the Copy­right Office admits the leg­isla­tive ratio­nale for dis­tin­guish­ing pre-1972 sound record­ings is “unclear.”15

What­ev­er the pedi­gree of sec­tion 301(c), its basic oper­a­tion pro­ceeds in three steps. First, the pro­vi­sion states that a litigant’s “rights and reme­dies” under state law in a pre-1972 sound record­ing shall not be “lim­it­ed or annulled” by fed­er­al law.16 Sec­ond, the pro­vi­sion states that no pre-1972 sound record­ing “shall be sub­ject to copy­right under this title.”17 Final­ly, the pro­vi­sion impos­es an expi­ra­tion date: fed­er­al pre­emp­tion elim­i­nates all state law pro­tec­tion in 2067, but because pre-1972 sound record­ings shall not be sub­ject to copy­right “under this title before, on, or after Feb­ru­ary 15, 2067,” fed­er­al pre­emp­tion forces such record­ings into the pub­lic domain.18

Accord­ing­ly, a lit­i­gant with a pre-1972 sound record­ing can­not claim any of the exclu­sive rights enu­mer­at­ed in the Act and must seek relief under state law.19 Nor should the Act, as a gen­er­al rule, be read to affect the gov­er­nance of those state copy­rights. Yet the Sec­ond Circuit’s Vimeo deci­sion upend­ed this sym­me­try, inter­pret­ing a pro­vi­sion of the Act to silent­ly func­tion as a “par­tial repeal” of sec­tion 301(c).20 To under­stand why, we need to jump from the 1970s to the 1990s and dis­cuss the safe har­bor frame­work of the Dig­i­tal Mil­len­ni­um Copy­right Act.

* * * * *

The Dig­i­tal Mil­len­ni­um Copy­right Act of 1998 (DMCA) sets out one of the most impor­tant copy­right tools for online actors: the sec­tion 512 safe har­bors.21 Sec­tion 512 enu­mer­ates a set of four safe har­bors for online ser­vice providers, the third of which, enact­ed in sec­tion 512(c) of the Copy­right Act, cov­ers infringe­ment claims that arise “by rea­son of the stor­age at the direc­tion of a user of mate­r­i­al that resides on a sys­tem or net­work con­trolled or oper­at­ed by or for the ser­vice provider.”22 As this applies to host­ed con­tent (includ­ing web­sites and social media), sec­tion 512(c) tends to be the most com­mer­cial­ly rel­e­vant and heav­i­ly lit­i­gat­ed.23 As long as qual­i­fy­ing ser­vice providers com­ply with cer­tain requirements—including prompt­ly remov­ing infring­ing con­tent upon noti­fi­ca­tion and rea­son­ably imple­ment­ing a repeat infringe­ment pol­i­cy24—they are not liable for any “infringe­ment of copy­right” uploaded by their users with­out their knowl­edge.25

The safe har­bors were enact­ed as a com­po­nent of the bal­anced frame­work of the DMCA. Con­gress under­stood that the expres­sive dig­i­tal mechan­ics of the internet—even in 1997, an eco­nom­i­cal­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly vital back­bone of net­worked communications—necessarily allow the tech­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty of mas­sive pira­cy. As Con­gress stat­ed, due to “the ease with which dig­i­tal works can be copied and dis­trib­uted world­wide vir­tu­al­ly instan­ta­neous­ly, copy­right own­ers will hes­i­tate to make their works read­i­ly avail­able on the Inter­net with­out rea­son­able assur­ance that they will be pro­tect­ed against mas­sive pira­cy.”26

But Con­gress also under­stood that tra­di­tion­al lia­bil­i­ty rules could hin­der growth of online ser­vices. Because of that same pos­si­bil­i­ty of mas­sive pira­cy, online providers stor­ing user-uploaded mate­r­i­al risked fac­ing sec­ondary lia­bil­i­ty for any poten­tial user-ini­ti­at­ed vio­la­tion: giv­en the vol­ume of uploaded con­tent on the inter­net, and the impos­ing costs and inher­ent uncer­tain­ty of copy­right lit­i­ga­tion,27 such expo­sure would cre­ate sub­stan­tial chill­ing effects in online media. Con­gress not­ed that “with­out clar­i­fi­ca­tion of their lia­bil­i­ty, ser­vice providers may hes­i­tate to make the nec­es­sary invest­ment in the expan­sion of the speed and capac­i­ty of the Inter­net.”28

Accord­ing­ly, two stat­ed pur­pos­es accom­pa­nied the enact­ment of sec­tion 512. First, the safe har­bors pro­vide “strong incen­tives” for ser­vice providers and copy­right own­ers to coop­er­ate in detect­ing online copy­right infringe­ment; and sec­ond, the safe har­bors are to pro­vide “greater cer­tain­ty” to ser­vice providers for poten­tial infringe­ment lia­bil­i­ty that may occur dur­ing their activ­i­ties.29 The statute strikes a balance.

While the impact of sec­tion 512(c) and its atten­dant notice-and-take­down sys­tem on cre­ators and con­tent own­ers is dis­put­ed,30 the impact on tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies in the two decades since imple­men­ta­tion has been seen as large­ly ben­e­fi­cial.31 Inter­net com­pa­nies rou­tine­ly invoke the pro­tec­tions of the safe har­bors, and com­men­ta­tors find sec­tion 512 a crit­i­cal back­bone of the legal frame­work for online con­tent.32 The safe har­bors, as com­men­ta­tors observe, allow “online ser­vice providers to cre­ate the plat­forms and ser­vices that users rely on to access infor­ma­tion and cre­ative con­tent, com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er, and cre­ate and share their own orig­i­nal works.”33

It should be clear enough that the sec­tion 512(c) safe har­bor opti­mizes behav­ioral pre­dictabil­i­ty when it applies to all forms of copy­right­ed media. This way, copy­right own­ers and ser­vice providers can pre­dictably uti­lize the safe har­bor frame­work whether the work at issue is a motion pic­ture, a musi­cal work, a lit­er­ary work, or any­thing else pro­tect­ed by the Copy­right Act.34 This is con­sis­tent with the Act’s back­bone pref­er­ence toward a uni­form copy­right regime applic­a­ble regard­less of sub­ject mat­ter.35

Still, it’s not a very strong back­bone. While the DMCA on its terms treats all sub­ject mat­ter alike, the rest of the Copy­right Act does not. Pre-1972 sound record­ings are not fed­er­al­ly copy­rightable sub­ject mat­ter.36 Yet the unique imper­a­tives of the DMCA and its safe har­bor rules estab­lished a devi­a­tion from this base­line exclu­sion. The ques­tion is which carve­out con­trols the other.

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Part Two. Vimeo and the Tiny Exception.

Courts and com­men­ta­tors are split as to whether the sec­tion 512(c) safe har­bor applies against state law claims for pre-1972 sound record­ings. The posi­tion of the Copy­right Office is that pre-1972 sound record­ings are not cov­ered by the safe harbor—though, it sug­gest­ed, “there is no pol­i­cy jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to exclude old­er sound record­ings from sec­tion 512.”37 Mean­while, the Sec­ond Cir­cuit agreed with the Copy­right Office’s pol­i­cy con­clu­sion but found the Act as cur­rent­ly writ­ten does per­mit a uni­form safe har­bor.38

A hand­ful of courts have reviewed the issue — near­ly all of them either state courts in New York or fed­er­al courts in the Sec­ond Cir­cuit. In the 2011 case Capi­tol Records, Inc. v. MP3tunes, LLC, a Dis­trict Court held that sec­tion 512(c) reach­es state-law (that is, pre-1972) sound record­ing claims.39 But a sub­se­quent Dis­trict Court in Capi­tol Records, LLC v. Vimeo, LLC reject­ed the MP3tunes hold­ing, instead accept­ing the con­clu­sions of the Copy­right Office.40 In Vimeo, a group of labels sued a video plat­form for fail­ing to remove videos alleged­ly con­tain­ing record­ings of copy­right­ed sound record­ings. The par­ties cross-moved for par­tial sum­ma­ry judg­ment on whether Vimeo was eli­gi­ble for the safe har­bor. The Dis­trict Court carved out the pre-1972 sound record­ing claims and, hold­ing the safe har­bor inap­plic­a­ble, grant­ed par­tial sum­ma­ry judg­ment to the labels.41

On appeal, the Sec­ond Cir­cuit vacat­ed the grant of par­tial sum­ma­ry judg­ment.42 Judge Lev­al, writ­ing for the pan­el, accept­ed the Copy­right Office’s pol­i­cy con­clu­sion but reject­ed its legal analy­sis, con­clud­ing that under the Act, the safe har­bor does apply against pre-1972 sound record­ings.43 To date, no oth­er fed­er­al court has broached the topic.

Fed­er­al­ism cre­ates uncer­tain­ty. A New York appel­late court rul­ing con­flicts with the Vimeo hold­ing, adopt­ing the Copy­right Office posi­tion that the safe har­bor excludes pre-1972 sound record­ings.44 On the basis of this con­flict, the Vimeo labels peti­tioned the Supreme Court to take the appeal in March 2017; like­ly owing to the absence of con­flict­ing fed­er­al cas­es on the books, the Court declined.45 The uncer­tain­ty remains live.

Even schol­ars and inter­est groups are unsure where the law stands. A smat­ter­ing of com­men­tary has focused on the inter­ac­tions between pre-1972 sound record­ings and the DMCA safe har­bors, but the con­clu­sions are ten­ta­tive and wary.46 The Copy­right Office not­ed that over the course of its study of pre-1972 sound record­ings, both of the stake­hold­ers rais­ing the issue —the Record­ing Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca and the Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foundation—agreed that the right answer is uncer­tain.47

Vimeo, writ­ten author­i­ta­tive­ly by Judge Lev­al, should have resolved the issue. But the Sec­ond Circuit’s hold­ing will not result in a pre­dictable oper­a­tion of the Copy­right Act. To under­stand why, we now turn to Vimeo.

* * * * *

Vimeo came down to a ques­tion of statu­to­ry inter­pre­ta­tion: the Copy­right Act is not clear as to whether the sec­tion 512(c) safe har­bor is a spe­cial excep­tion to the rule against fed­er­al pro­tec­tion of pre-1972 sound record­ings (as Vimeo argued), or whether pre-1972 sound record­ings are a spe­cial excep­tion to the fed­er­al lim­i­ta­tion on lia­bil­i­ty for online ser­vice providers (as Capi­tol Records argued).48 The Sec­ond Cir­cuit sided with the for­mer read­ing, find­ing a “tiny excep­tion” with­in the statu­to­ry frame­work to the blan­ket pre­emp­tion rules.49 But this read­ing is strained at best.

Sec­tion 512(c) pro­vides that qual­i­fy­ing ser­vice providers “shall not be liable . . . . for infringe­ment of copy­right.”50 The Act nowhere direct­ly defines either “infringe­ment” or “copy­right.”51 Assess­ing that statu­to­ry silence, the Sec­ond Cir­cuit found that the DMCA safe har­bor must not be lim­it­ed to fed­er­al infringe­ment claims—in fact, it extends against all infringe­ment claims, includ­ing those assert­ing state copy­rights.52 Log­i­cal­ly, the court con­clud­ed, “[o]ne who has been found liable for infringe­ment of copy­right under state laws has indis­putably been found ‘liable for infringe­ment of copy­right.’”53 The court but­tressed this read­ing by not­ing that the safe har­bor pro­vi­sion fails to qual­i­fy the phrase with “under this title,” which appears in oth­er parts of the Act.54

While sen­si­ble in iso­la­tion, this read­ing con­flicts with the broad­er struc­ture of sec­tion 512 as well as with that of the Act, which repeat­ed­ly and (most­ly) con­sis­tent­ly estab­lish­es pro­tec­tion with ref­er­ence to a set of specif­i­cal­ly enu­mer­at­ed exclu­sive rights list­ed in the Act.

First, much of the safe har­bor frame­work itself appears to require fed­er­al juris­dic­tion. Sec­tion 512(h), for exam­ple, pro­vides for the issuance of fed­er­al sub­poe­nas to iden­ti­fy infringers.55 This is only avail­able to a “copy­right own­er” or its agent, and the Act defines a “copy­right own­er” as one who holds claim to “any one of the exclu­sive rights com­prised in a copy­right.”56 Sec­tion 512(j) per­mits injunc­tive relief against par­tic­u­lar online ser­vice providers, but sim­i­lar­ly, it is defined in ref­er­ence to the Copy­right Act’s gen­er­al injunc­tion pro­vi­sion, which requires fed­er­al juris­dic­tion.57 Own­ers of pre-1972 sound record­ings may not seek a DMCA injunc­tion or sub­poe­na against an online ser­vice provider, because the Copy­right Act’s  juris­dic­tion does not extend to their record­ings.58

Sec­ond, the broad­er struc­ture of the Copy­right Act con­firms this view, advo­cat­ed by the Copy­right Office and sup­port­ed by Pro­fes­sor Nim­mer. Through­out the Act, the six exclu­sive rights—of repro­duc­tion, prepa­ra­tion of deriv­a­tive works, dis­tri­b­u­tion, pub­lic dis­play, pub­lic per­for­mance, and pub­lic per­for­mance of sound record­ings by means of a dig­i­tal audio transmission—form the axle of the Act’s def­i­n­i­tions and oper­a­tions.59 In addi­tion to defin­ing a “copy­right own­er” in ref­er­ence to exclu­sive rights, the Act’s pri­ma­ry vio­la­tion pro­vi­sion states that “[a]nyone who vio­lates any of the exclu­sive rights of the copy­right own­er as pro­vid­ed by sec­tions 106 through 122 . . . . is an infringer of the copy­right.”60 Every oth­er sec­tion of the chap­ter that describes copy­right vio­la­tions and reme­dies (which includes sec­tion 512) is lim­it­ed to fed­er­al copy­right.61 This is the posi­tion of the Copy­right Office, which argued that “infringe­ment of copy­right” is lim­it­ed to “infringe­ments of rights pro­tect­ed under title 17, and does not include infringe­ments of rights pro­tect­ed under com­mon law or statute of any State.”62 It not­ed that no oth­er sec­tions of the Act qual­i­fy­ing “infringe­ment of copy­right” had ever been applied to state claims.63 Sim­i­lar­ly, Nim­mer argues that:

[I]t would be high­ly strange for Con­gress, hav­ing explic­it­ly defined at the out­set of the chap­ter ‘an infringer of the copy­right’ to be only some­one who vio­lat­ed fed­er­al copy­right inter­ests, and then hav­ing used the term ‘infringe­ment’ in umpteen suc­ceed­ing sec­tions to mean a vio­la­tion only of fed­er­al copy­right inter­ests, to then cul­mi­nate the chap­ter in 1998 with an unadorned ref­er­ence to ‘infringe­ment of copy­right’ with the intent that it mean state copy­right inter­ests.64

The Sec­ond Circuit’s logic—every infringer of fed­er­al copy­right com­mits “infringe­ment” with­in the mean­ing of the sec­tion 512(c) safe har­bor, but not all infringe­ment pro­tect­ed by the safe har­bor is of fed­er­al copyrights—makes lim­it­ed sense and ren­ders the Act’s struc­ture hol­low. As a New York state court not­ed, the DMCA “express­ly iden­ti­fies the rights con­ferred by the Copy­right Act in stat­ing who a ‘copy­right infringer’ is for pur­pos­es of the DMCA. Had Con­gress intend­ed to extend the DMCA’s reach to hold­ers of com­mon-law rights it would have not have pro­vid­ed so nar­row a def­i­n­i­tion.”65

Thus, while the safe harbor’s bare phras­ing (“infringe­ment of copy­right”) lends itself to encom­pass­ing state claims, its pres­ence in a copy­right sys­tem of enu­mer­at­ed fed­er­al rights sug­gests state law claims are out­side the safe har­bor. Although the Sec­ond Cir­cuit found its read­ing “lit­er­al and nat­ur­al,”66 the text is at best ambiguous.

* * * * * *

The leg­isla­tive his­to­ry sur­round­ing the pas­sage of sec­tion 512 does not resolve the ambi­gu­i­ty. The DMCA does not express any intent to lim­it the Act’s pre­emp­tion rules.67 More­over, in the same term as it passed the DMCA, Con­gress amend­ed the Act’s pre­emp­tion pro­vi­sions, extend­ing the pub­lic domain date from 2047 to 2067.68 Lit­i­gants have there­fore argued that Con­gress intend­ed the DMCA to exclude pre-1972 sound record­ings, as the rest of the Act does. The Sec­ond Cir­cuit did not address whether this should impact its inter­pre­ta­tion of the safe har­bor, but a New York state court found the argu­ment per­sua­sive.69 Schol­ars have raised the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the enact­ing Con­gress may not have thought about online sound record­ings at all.70

What con­vinced the Vimeo court, how­ev­er, was the per­ni­cious result of exclud­ing only pre-1972 sound record­ings from the ambit of the safe har­bor. Judge Lev­al, writ­ing for the court, not­ed that an exclu­sion would place an oner­ous bur­den on ser­vice providers, which “would be com­pelled either to incur heavy costs of mon­i­tor­ing every post­ing to be sure it did not con­tain infring­ing pre-1972 record­ings, or incur­ring poten­tial­ly crush­ing lia­bil­i­ties under state copy­right laws.”71 The court not­ed that the ques­tion was not mere­ly academic—pre-1972 sound record­ings remain of extra­or­di­nary com­mer­cial val­ue, and con­se­quent­ly remain sub­ject to lit­i­ga­tion.72 The costs of such com­pli­ance would, the court deter­mined, either dis­suade invest­ment in online infra­struc­ture, or pass the extreme costs to con­sumers.73 That would defeat the DMCA frame­work, which was to make “eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble the pro­vi­sion of valu­able Inter­net ser­vices while expand­ing pro­tec­tions of the inter­ests of copy­right own­ers through the new notice-and-take­down pro­vi­sion.”74 Thus, the court deter­mined, the safe har­bor must apply to all works — whether pro­tect­ed by fed­er­al copy­right or state copy­right.75

The court there­fore found that the DMCA “estab­lish­es a tiny excep­tion to the gen­er­al prin­ci­ple” that pre-1972 sound record­ings are exempt from fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion.76 It vacat­ed the dis­trict court’s grant of sum­ma­ry judg­ment to the record label plain­tiffs regard­ing the avail­abil­i­ty of the sec­tion 512(c) safe har­bor applied against lia­bil­i­ty for infringe­ment of pre-1972 sound record­ings.77

Vimeo’s hold­ing con­flicts with a 2013 New York state court deci­sion hold­ing that the DMCA’s “safe har­bors” do not apply against pre-1972 sound record­ings.78 In Escape Media Group, a record label argued that state law claims in pre-1972 sound record­ings could not be barred by sec­tion 512(c)—allowing a safe har­bor defense would effec­tive­ly “annul” or “lim­it” com­mon law rights and reme­dies, which the pre­emp­tion pro­vi­sion for­bids.79

The Appel­late Divi­sion, inter­pret­ing the text, agreed that allow­ing a defen­dant to raise sec­tion 512(c) against a state law claim would “lim­it” the avail­able state rights and reme­dies as set forth in sec­tion 301(c).80 Nor, it con­clud­ed, did Con­gress intend the DMCA to “implic­it­ly dilute” sec­tion 301(c)—not mere­ly because the provision’s tem­po­ral line “explic­it­ly, and very clear­ly, sep­a­rat­ed the uni­verse of sound record­ings into two cat­e­gories,” but also because the con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous amend­ment meant that Con­gress was in fact “acute­ly aware” of the poten­tial for qual­i­fi­ca­tion, and reject­ed it.81

* * * * * *

Part Three. Con­se­quences of a “Tiny Excep­tion” in Either Direction.

As the Sec­ond Cir­cuit not­ed, adher­ence to a strong read­ing of the pre­emp­tion pro­vi­sion would mean that ser­vice providers could count on the pro­tec­tions of the safe har­bor for any copy­right­ed mate­r­i­al, except pre-1972 sound record­ings. Giv­en the con­tin­u­ing eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al vital­i­ty of pre-1972 sound record­ings, ser­vice providers can expect some user-direct­ed infringe­ment of those works.82

But if the DMCA does not pro­tect against actions assert­ing pre-1972 sound record­ings, then ser­vice providers could not claim the blan­ket safe har­bor that facil­i­tates their busi­ness mod­el. They would have to mon­i­tor their sys­tems for a par­tic­u­lar sliv­er of pro­tect­ed expression.

This spe­cial atten­tion is not mere­ly incon­ve­nient. It inverts the allo­ca­tion of respon­si­bil­i­ties express­ly con­tem­plat­ed by the text of the safe har­bor. Ser­vice providers who qual­i­fy for the safe har­bor are not required to affir­ma­tive­ly mon­i­tor their sys­tem for infring­ing mate­r­i­al.83 Instead, Con­gress placed the mon­i­tor­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty on the copy­right own­er: if infring­ing mate­r­i­al is iden­ti­fied, the own­er must send a take­down notice to the ser­vice provider.84 Copy­right own­ers rou­tine­ly protest the inequities of the mon­i­tor­ing costs, liken­ing it to a mil­lion-dol­lar game of “Whack-a-Mole.”85 While the wis­dom of an alter­na­tive sys­tem is beyond the scope of this Con­tri­bu­tion, it is clear that the copy­right and online indus­tries have con­sis­tent­ly inter­pret­ed the DMCA to require action ini­ti­at­ed by the own­er, not the ser­vice provider.

Shift­ing mon­i­tor­ing costs for only one sliv­er of copy­right­ed mate­r­i­al may be par­tic­u­lar­ly unde­sir­able for a ser­vice provider. Alter­ing lia­bil­i­ty rules may require spe­cial fil­ter­ing mech­a­nisms for only pre-1972 sound record­ings. This may or may not be tech­no­log­i­cal­ly feasible—and the suc­cess prob­a­bly depends on the integri­ty of attrib­uted copy­right data for dig­i­tal ver­sions of old sound record­ings, which requires a lev­el of coor­di­na­tion from the music indus­try that has not yet manifested.

Even if fea­si­ble, the costs of such a tar­get­ed mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram would priv­i­lege ser­vice providers with suf­fi­cient scale to invest in such a pro­gram, at the expense of star­tups.86 As an exam­ple: YouTube pre­served its posi­tion against copy­right hold­ers by invest­ing in Con­tent ID, which auto­mat­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fies copy­right­ed con­tent post­ed to its sys­tem, and per­mits copy­right hold­ers to remove or mon­e­tize the use.87 Con­tent ID forms an essen­tial part of YouTube’s archi­tec­ture, but a pro­pri­etary $60 mil­lion tool is dif­fi­cult to repli­cate.88 YouTube stands alone with respect to scale: while inde­pen­dent video plat­form Vimeo at the time of the Capi­tol Records lit­i­ga­tion host­ed more than 12.3 mil­lion reg­is­tered users, YouTube claimed over 800 mil­lion unique users.89 This dis­par­i­ty reflects the par­tic­u­lar impor­tance of the safe har­bor pro­vi­sions to small-to-mid-tier ser­vice providers: an amount of user-uploaded con­tent out­strip­ping man­u­al over­sight, yet also inad­e­quate resources to invest in auto­mat­ic controls.

For small ser­vice providers fac­ing an inun­da­tion of poten­tial­ly-infring­ing, user-uploaded con­tent, win­now­ing out pre-1972 con­tent for spe­cial inspec­tion is unre­al­is­tic. By con­trast, a blan­ket immu­ni­ty pro­vi­sion such as the sec­tion 512(c) safe har­bor is con­ducive toward con­tin­ued growth and inno­va­tion of these small providers. Yet whether the bal­ance effec­tu­at­ed by the Vimeo hold­ing is a desir­able imple­men­ta­tion of the Act’s statu­to­ry goals depends on the holding’s effect on copy­right owners.

* * * * * *

In their peti­tion to the Supreme Court for cer­tio­rari, the Vimeo plain­tiffs argued that the Sec­ond Circuit’s deci­sion harmed the posi­tion of own­ers of sound record­ings by “con­fer­ring fed­er­al defens­es that annul or lim­it state-law rights and reme­dies, with­out pro­vid­ing the increased pro­tec­tions that Con­gress grant­ed in the DMCA (and in oth­er pro­vi­sions of the Copy­right Act) to own­ers of fed­er­al­ly-pro­tect­ed record­ings.”90 In oth­er words, an own­er of a pre-1972 sound record­ing is lim­it­ed by the defens­es of the DMCA, but can­not reap the ben­e­fits of the DMCA (or any­where else in the Copy­right Act).

The lit­i­ga­tion con­se­quences of the Vimeo deci­sion are at least for­mal­is­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. If the safe har­bor applies to pre-1972 sound record­ings, then it is the only part of fed­er­al copy­right law that does so—aside from the pro­vi­sion express­ly with­hold­ing fed­er­al copy­right pro­tec­tion.91 This estab­lish­es a dis­con­ti­nu­ity between the scope of rights and the scope of defens­es. A copy­right own­er can­not assert fed­er­al pro­tec­tion for its pre-1972 sound record­ings and is lim­it­ed to alter­na­tive (though poten­tial­ly exten­sive) state pro­tec­tions. How­ev­er, under Vimeo, such a state claim against a ser­vice provider could be defeat­ed by a fed­er­al defense found in a law that pro­vides ben­e­fits unavail­able to the suing party.

Whether this is a prob­lem beyond for­mal sym­me­try is a hard­er ques­tion. Although this Con­tri­bu­tion is not intend­ed to be an exhaus­tive the­o­ret­i­cal overview of copy­right juris­dic­tion, let alone copy­right pre­emp­tion, a brief dis­cus­sion is nec­es­sary to mod­el the pro­ce­dur­al con­se­quences of Vimeo.

Between Vimeo and Escape Media Group, there is a split between the courts of New York state and fed­er­al courts seat­ed in New York.92 It is pos­si­ble that New York state courts will revis­it their hold­ing to ensure con­sis­ten­cy with the Sec­ond Cir­cuit. How­ev­er, this would require state appel­late courts to adopt a def­er­en­tial stance toward fed­er­al restric­tions on state law (as inter­pret­ed by a fed­er­al court). More­over, Pro­fes­sor Nim­mer observes that Vimeo’s appli­ca­tion of fed­er­al law to deter­mine the scope of non-pre­empt­ed rights under state law chart­ed “new ter­rain.”93

This also assumes that Con­gress is unlike­ly to amend the Copy­right Act to clear­ly apply sec­tion 512(c) against state copy­right claims, or even fed­er­al­ize claims for pre-1972 sound record­ings alto­geth­er. Leg­is­la­tors reg­u­lar­ly intro­duce bills to amend the scope of fed­er­al copy­right law—most recent­ly, Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Dar­rell Issa (R‑CA) and Jer­rold Nadler (D‑NY) intro­duced a bill (the “CLASSICS Act”) that would, among oth­er things, allow a defen­dant to raise the safe har­bor lim­i­ta­tion against a new dig­i­tal per­for­mance right of pre-1972 sound record­ings.94 The bill is sup­port­ed by a coali­tion of online stream­ing ser­vices (such as Pan­do­ra), as well as own­ers and roy­al­ty admin­is­tra­tors of sound record­ings (such as RIAA and SoundEx­change); broad­cast­ers declined to com­ment.95 How­ev­er, this bill, which only extends the dig­i­tal pub­lic per­for­mance right to pre-1972 sound record­ings, does not clar­i­fy the avail­abil­i­ty of sec­tion 512 to oth­er claims involv­ing sound record­ings oth­er­wise not pro­tect­ed by fed­er­al law.

Assum­ing the uncer­tain­ty per­sists in both the courts and Con­gress, what are the con­se­quences for lit­i­gants? Plain­tiffs in the DMCA cas­es gen­er­al­ly bring a bun­dle of copy­right claims to court. Lit­i­gants assert­ing both pre- and post-1972 sound recordings—a com­mon pos­ture for major record labels suing inter­net ser­vice providers—may sue in fed­er­al court, but the Sec­ond Cir­cuit made clear that a defen­dant may apply sec­tion 512 against both sets of copy­right claims. Fed­er­al courts are not shy about dis­pos­ing of cas­es on sum­ma­ry judg­ment through the safe har­bor.96

Because of this legal dias­po­ra, plain­tiffs with both pre- and post-1972 sound record­ings may have three choic­es if they want to sur­vive a sec­tion 512(c) dis­po­si­tion. They could try to split their claims into par­al­lel state and fed­er­al lit­i­ga­tion. They prob­a­bly will not do that — copy­right lit­i­ga­tion tends to be cost­ly and dis­cov­ery-inten­sive, and any diver­gence in factfind­ing could result in unde­sir­able preclu­sive effects. Plain­tiffs could also try to avoid fed­er­al court by assert­ing only pre-1972 sound record­ings in state court against a non-diverse defen­dant. This is more like­ly for labels with lega­cy cat­a­logs.97

Final­ly, there is the option that the Vimeo plain­tiffs are cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing. Now remand­ed to fed­er­al Dis­trict Court, defen­dants have moved to dis­miss the remain­ing state law claims as sub­ject to the sec­tion 512(c) safe har­bor.98 Plain­tiffs have tak­en a pecu­liar tack: they argue that Vimeo only held that sec­tion 512(c) applies to its claims under com­mon-law copy­right — but not its state law unfair com­pe­ti­tion claims, which are not sub­ject to the “infringe­ment of copy­right” lan­guage inter­pret­ed by the Sec­ond Cir­cuit.99 They are, essen­tial­ly, argu­ing for a tiny excep­tion to the Vimeo “tiny excep­tion.” The court has not yet decid­ed the issue.

This presents a fas­ci­nat­ing sort of mir­ror-uni­verse pre­emp­tion dis­pute: nobody is argu­ing, as they usu­al­ly would, that a fed­er­al copy­right claim pre­empts a state-law unfair com­pe­ti­tion claim.

Here, there is no fed­er­al copy­right claim, and there nev­er was any. Instead, the dis­pute is essen­tial­ly whether a fed­er­al defense is applic­a­ble to state claims that would have been pre­empt­ed in fed­er­al court had they been borne out through sub­ject mat­ter for which a fed­er­al claim is avail­able. State law unfair com­pe­ti­tion claims are com­mon­ly attached to copy­right lit­i­ga­tion, but they can be pre­empt­ed by fed­er­al copy­right law (though not always).100 It is legit­i­mate­ly unclear which qua­si-copy­right claims the safe har­bor would pro­tect against.

And it is not com­plete­ly clear that a pre­emp­tion analy­sis would set­tle the prob­lem: after all, the Sec­ond Cir­cuit appeared to reject a for­mal dis­tinc­tion between state and fed­er­al copy­right claims, at least as applied against an inter­net ser­vice provider. So under Vimeo’s pur­po­sive read­ing of sec­tion 512(c), there does not seem to be a mean­ing­ful ana­lyt­ic dif­fer­ence between a state copy­right claim and a state unfair com­pe­ti­tion claim that would be pre­empt­ed by fed­er­al law. Allow­ing either to avoid the safe har­bor would cre­ate an attrac­tive loop­hole for own­ers of pre-1972 sound record­ings and impose the same sorts of mon­i­tor­ing and lit­i­ga­tion costs on inter­net com­pa­nies that Con­gress sought to limit.


The Vimeo deci­sion may be sen­si­ble inter­net pol­i­cy, but it tears a gap­ing hole in the inter­di­men­sion­al uni­verse of copy­right pre­emp­tion through which mon­sters may arrive. A copy­right ratio­nal­ist should feel sin­cere­ly ambiva­lent about the “tiny excep­tion” of the safe har­bor to the non­copy­righta­bil­i­ty of pre-1972 sound record­ings. It seems cor­rect that ser­vice providers should not be com­pelled to assume mon­i­tor­ing costs for a priv­i­leged and arbi­trary set of works. But the price of the Sec­ond Circuit’s “tiny excep­tion” to copy­right pre­emp­tion was an imper­fect fed­er­al­iza­tion of state copy­right law, implied and retail, allow­ing for the sort of tricksy plead­ing that no court should find desir­able. For now, ser­vice providers can rest easy. For the rest of us, it’s just anoth­er step on the march toward whole­sale copy­right reform.


1. Ari Lip­sitz grad­u­at­ed New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in May 2018. The fol­low­ing extends from one half of the 2017 Prob­lem at the Car­do­zo BMI Moot Court Com­pe­ti­tion. In the prob­lem, close­ly adapt­ed from the fact pat­tern of Capi­tol Records v. Vimeo, a record label alleged that 400 files host­ed by a video stream­ing plat­form infringed its sound record­ing copy­rights. One hun­dred of those copy­rights involved pre-1972 sound record­ings, and one part of the ques­tion pre­sent­ed was whether the plat­form could suc­cess­ful­ly raise the DMCA safe har­bor against all assert­ed record­ings. (The oth­er part con­cerned the appro­pri­ate stan­dard of “red flag” knowl­edge for ser­vice providers, which is hap­pi­ly beyond the scope of this Entry.)
2. Capi­tol Records, LLC v. Vimeo, LLC, 826 F.3d 78 (2d Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 1374 (2017).
3. Id. at 92.
4. See 17 U.S.C. § 301(c). In the argot of the 1976 Act, “fix­a­tion” refers to the moment when a work becomes pro­tectable. See § 102(a). For read­abil­i­ty pur­pos­es, this Con­tri­bu­tion short­ens “sound record­ings fixed before Feb­ru­ary 15, 1972” to “pre-1972 sound recordings.”
5. See § 512.
6. See gen­er­al­ly Capi­tol Records, LLC v. Vimeo, LLC, 826 F.3d 78 (2d Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 1374 (2017).
7. See 17 U.S.C. § 512(m).
8. See id. at 92–93 (“The finan­cial bur­dens in either case would be sub­stan­tial and would like­ly either dis­suade ser­vice providers from mak­ing large invest­ments in the expan­sion of the growth and speed of the Inter­net (which Con­gress sought to encour­age) or per­haps cause them to charge so much for the ser­vice as to under­mine sub­stan­tial­ly the pub­lic use­ful­ness of the ser­vice Con­gress under­took to promote.”).
9. See Capi­tol Records, Inc. v. Nax­os of Am., Inc., 4 N.Y.3d 540 (2005) (trac­ing state pro­tec­tion of sound record­ings to “fill the void” left by Con­gress); see also infra note 12.
10. § 301(c). Sec­tion 301(c) reads in full:

With respect to sound record­ings fixed before Feb­ru­ary 15, 1972, any rights or reme­dies under the com­mon law or statutes of any State shall not be annulled or lim­it­ed by this title until Feb­ru­ary 15, 2067. The pre­emp­tive pro­vi­sions of sub­sec­tion (a) shall apply to any such rights and reme­dies per­tain­ing to any cause of action aris­ing from under­tak­ings com­menced on and after Feb­ru­ary 15, 2067. Notwith­stand­ing the pro­vi­sions of sec­tion 303, no sound record­ing fixed before Feb­ru­ary 15, 1972, shall be sub­ject to copy­right under this title before, on, or after Feb­ru­ary 15, 2067.

11. Id.
12. See § 301(a). Sec­tion 301(a) reads in full:

On and after Jan­u­ary 1, 1978, all legal or equi­table rights that are equiv­a­lent to any of the exclu­sive rights with­in the gen­er­al scope of copy­right as spec­i­fied by sec­tion 106 in works of author­ship that are fixed in a tan­gi­ble medi­um of expres­sion and come with­in the sub­ject mat­ter of copy­right as spec­i­fied by sec­tions 102 and 103, whether cre­at­ed before or after that date and whether pub­lished or unpub­lished, are gov­erned exclu­sive­ly by this title. There­after, no per­son is enti­tled to any such right or equiv­a­lent right in any such work under the com­mon law or statutes of any State.

13. This is some­times referred to as “com­mon law copy­right,” though depend­ing on the state it may stem from statute, com­mon law (under either copy­right infringe­ment or a tort such as unfair com­pe­ti­tion), or a com­bi­na­tion. See, e.g., Cal. Civ. Code § 980(a)(2) (West 2011) (grant­i­ng right of “exclu­sive own­er­ship” for own­ers of pre-1972 sound record­ings); EMI Records Ltd. v. Premise Media Corp., 2008 N.Y. Misc. Lex­is 7485 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Aug. 8, 2008) (hold­ing fair use avail­able as a defense to New York com­mon law copy­right infringe­ment claim); Colum­bia Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem Inc. v. Melody Record­ings Inc., 341 A.2d 348 (N.J. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 1975) (affirm­ing grant of sum­ma­ry judg­ment to plain­tiff for unfair com­pe­ti­tion claim alleg­ing record pira­cy). For a com­pre­hen­sive overview of var­i­ous state law copy­right regimes, see gen­er­al­ly Copy­right Office, Fed­er­al Copy­right Pro­tec­tion for Pre-1972 Sound Record­ings 20–49 (Dec. 2011), (here­inafter “Sound Record­ings Report”).
14. Sound Record­ings Report, supra note 13, at 83. In fact, the pre­emp­tion rule for pre-1972 sound record­ings pro­vi­sion is one of sev­er­al pecu­liar lim­i­ta­tions applied to sound record­ings through­out the Copy­right Act. For exam­ple, sound record­ings are unique­ly not sub­ject to the exclu­sive right of gen­er­al pub­lic per­for­mance — instead, the Act sub­sti­tutes for a more lim­it­ed right of pub­lic per­for­mance “by means of a dig­i­tal audio trans­mis­sion.” See 17 U.S.C. § 106(6).
15. Sound Record­ings Report, supra note 13, at 14. One trea­tise argues that it was pure­ly acci­den­tal. See 1 Nim­mer on Copy­right § 2.10[B][1][a][i] (2017). This inco­her­ence is con­sis­tent with the gen­er­al per­cep­tion that the Copy­right Act’s pre­emp­tion rules are con­cep­tu­al­ly messy. See, e.g., Joseph P. Bauer, Address­ing the Inco­heren­cy of the Pre­emp­tion Pro­vi­sion of the Copy­right Act of 1976, 10 Van. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 1, 2 (2007) (describ­ing sec­tion 301 as a “leg­isla­tive fail­ure”). A full dis­cus­sion of copy­right pre­emp­tion is for­tu­nate­ly beyond the scope of this Contribution.
16. 17 U.S.C. § 301(c).
17. Id.
18. Id. Imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ing the enact­ment of the DMCA, Con­gress extend­ed the expi­ra­tion date from 2047 to 2067. See Son­ny Bono Copy­right Term Exten­sion Act, Pub L. 105–298, 112 U.S. Stat. 2827, 105th Con­gress, 2d Sess., Oct. 27, 1998 (amend­ing 17 U.S.C. § 301(c)).
19. See Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sir­ius XM Radio, Inc., 827 F.3d 1016, 1018 n.1 (11th Cir. 2016) (“1 Because Flo & Eddie’s record­ings were fixed before Feb­ru­ary 15, 1972, they enjoy copy­right pro­tec­tion, if at all, pur­suant to state law.”).
20. Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 92.
21. See 17 U.S.C. §§ 512(a)–(d).
22. Id. § 512(c).
23. See, e.g., UMG Record­ings, Inc. v. Shel­ter Cap­i­tal Part­ners LLC, 718 F.3d 1006 (9th Cir. 2013) (affirm­ing grant of § 512(c) safe har­bor to video plat­form on sum­ma­ry judg­ment);  Via­com Intern., Inc. v. YouTube, Inc., 676 F.3d 19 (2d Cir. 2012) (vacat­ing grant of sum­ma­ry judg­ment to video plat­form and remand­ing to deter­mine whether plat­form had suf­fi­cient knowl­edge of alleged infringe­ment to fore­close safe har­bor); cf. BMG Rights Man­age­ment (US) LLC v. Cox Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Inc., 149 F.Supp.3d 634, 662 (E.D. Va. 2015) (grant­i­ng sum­ma­ry judg­ment to plain­tiff that ser­vice provider was not enti­tled to § 512(a) safe harbor).
24. 17 U.S.C. §§ 512(c)(1)(A)–(C), 512(i). See gen­er­al­ly Jen­nifer M. Urban & Lau­ra Quil­ter, Effi­cient Process or “Chill­ing Effects”? Take­down Notices Under Sec­tion 512 of the Dig­i­tal Mil­len­ni­um Copy­right Act, 22 San­ta Clara Com­put­er & High Tech. L.J. 621, 624 (2006) (set­ting forth mechan­ics of the safe harbor).
25. Id. § 512(c). See, e.g., Via­com, 676 F.3d at 32 (requir­ing actu­al knowl­edge or aware­ness of facts and cir­cum­stances indi­cat­ing spe­cif­ic and iden­ti­fi­able instances of infringe­ment to dis­qual­i­fy online ser­vice provider from safe har­bor); Per­fect 10, Inc. v. CCBill LLC, 488 F.3d 1102 (9th Cir. 2007) (set­ting forth require­ments for ser­vice providers to raise safe harbor).
26. S. Rep. No. 105–190, at 8 (1998).
27. One source esti­mates that copy­right suits aver­age three times the cost greater than an aver­age civ­il suit. Am. Intel­lec­tu­al Prop. L. Ass’n, Report of the Eco­nom­ic Sur­vey 35 (2011).
28. S. Rep. No. 105–190, at 8 (1998).
29. Id. at 20.
30. See Daniel Seng, The State of the Dis­cor­dant Union: An Empir­i­cal Analy­sis of DMCA Take­down Notices, 18 Va. J.L. & Tech. 369, 376 (2014) (exam­in­ing the fre­quen­cy and impact of DMCA take­down notices, “the main­stay of con­tent providers for man­ag­ing online infringement”).
31. See gen­er­al­ly Note, Daniel Etcov­itch, DMCA § 512 Pain Points: Music and Tech­nol­o­gy Indus­try Per­spec­tives in Jux­ta­po­si­tion, 30 Harv. J.L. & Tech. 547, 552 n.33 (2017) (col­lect­ing tech­nol­o­gy stake­hold­er comments).
32. See also Edward Lee, Decod­ing the DMCA Safe Har­bors, 32 Colum. J.L. & Arts 233, 268 (2009) (argu­ing “the DMCA safe har­bors act as First Amend­ment safe­guards for the internet”).
33. Cen­ter for Democ­ra­cy & Tech­nol­o­gy & R Street Insti­tute, Before the Unit­ed States Copy­right Office, Library of Con­gress Sec­tion 512 Study, Dock­et No. 2015–7 (April 1, 2016), avail­able at
34. See 17 U.S.C. § 102(a)(1)–(8) (detail­ing works pro­tect­ed by the Act).
35. See S. Rep. No. 93–473, at 112–14 (1975) (list­ing goals of the 1976 Copy­right Act to include “pro­mot­ing nation­al uni­for­mi­ty” and “elim­i­nat­ing divi­sions in copy­rightable sub­ject mat­ter by pub­li­ca­tion status”).
36. 17 U.S.C. § 301(c).
37. Sound Record­ings Report, supra note 13, at 130.
38. Com­pare Vimeo, 326 F.3d at 93 (“We con­clude that the safe har­bor estab­lished by § 512(c) pro­tects a qual­i­fy­ing ser­vice provider from lia­bil­i­ty for infringe­ment of copy­right under state law.”), with Sound Record­ings Report, supra note 13, at 132 (“In short, it is for Con­gress, not the courts, to extend the Copy­right Act to pre-1972 sound record­ings, both with respect to the rights grant­ed under the Act and the lim­i­ta­tions on those rights (such as sec­tion 512) set forth in the Act.”).
39. 821 F.Supp.2d 627 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (hold­ing that “copy­right infringe­ment” encom­pass­es fed­er­al and state vio­la­tions), rev’d in part, aff’d in part sub nom. EMI Chris­t­ian Music Grp. v. MP3tunes, LLC, 840 F.3d 69 (2d Cir. 2016), super­seded, 844 F.3d 79.
40. 972 F.Supp.2d 500, 536–37 (S.D.N.Y. 2013), aff’d in part, vacat­ed in part, 826 F.3d 78 (2d Cir. 2016), cert denied, 137 S. Ct. 1374 (2017).
41. Id.
42. Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 93.
43. Id. at 89 (“While we unhesi­tat­ing­ly acknowl­edge the Copy­right Office’s supe­ri­or exper­tise on the Copy­right Act, we can­not accept its read­ing of § 512(c). It is based in major part on a mis­read­ing of the statute.”); see also Car­toon Net­work LP, LLLP v. CSC Hold­ings, Inc., 536 F.3d 121, 129 (2d Cir. 2008) (afford­ing only Skid­more def­er­ence to a Copy­right Office report and reject­ing it as unpersuasive).
44. UMG Recs., Inc. v. Escape Media Grp., Inc., 964 N.Y.S. 2d 106, 107 A.D.3d 51 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013).
45. Capi­tol Records, LLC v. Vimeo, LLC, 137 S. Ct. 1374 (2017).
46.  For one, Pro­fes­sor Nim­mer argues the safe har­bor does not cov­er pre-1972 sound record­ings. See 4 Nim­mer on Copy­right § 12B.07[E][3][c]. Pro­fes­sor Patry reviewed the var­i­ous posi­tions with­out weigh­ing in. 6 Patry on Copy­right 21:85.10 (2017). Com­men­ta­tors gen­er­al­ly agree that sec­tion 512(c) ought to cov­er pre-1972 sound record­ings (usu­al­ly as part of a broad­er advo­ca­cy toward copy­right fed­er­al­iza­tion), but dis­agree whether it cur­rent­ly does. See, e.g., P. Dylan Jensen, The Pre-1972 Sound Record­ings Land­scape: A Need for a Uni­form Fed­er­al Copy­right Scheme, 38 Hast­ings Comm. & Ent. L.J. 273, 279–82 (2016) (argu­ing that the issue is gen­uine­ly unclear); Tas­tuya Adachi, Did Vimeo Kill the Radio Star? DMCA, Safe Har­bors, Pre-1972 Sound Record­ings & the Future of Dig­i­tal Music, 34 Car­do­zo Arts & Ent. L.J. 443, 462–64 (2016) (unclear); Bri­an G. Shaf­fer, Sir­ius XM Radio, Inc., Defen­dant: The Case For a Uni­fied Copy­right Sys­tem for Fed­er­al Record­ings, 35 Pace L. Rev. 1016, 1024–27 (2015) (should and does); Leigh F. Gill, et al., Time to Face the Music: Cur­rent State and Fed­er­al Copy­right Law Issues With Pre-1972 Sound Record­ings, 6 No. 6 Land­slide 60, 61 (2014) (unclear); Tong Xu, The Future of Online User-Gen­er­at­ed Con­tent in the Video-Shar­ing Busi­ness: Capi­tol Records LLC v. Vimeo LLC, 17 Tul. J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. 375, 380 (2014) (does not); Michael Erlinger, Jr., An Ana­log Solu­tion in a Dig­i­tal World: Pro­vid­ing Fed­er­al Copy­right Pro­tec­tion for Pre-1972 Sound Record­ings, 16 UCLA Ent. L. Rev. 45, 65–67 (2009) (uncer­tain); see gen­er­al­ly Andrew M. Pitchin, Cast­ing Com­mon Law and the Music Indus­try Adrift: Pre-1972 Sound Record­ings Enter Fed­er­al Safe Har­bors, 91 Or. L. Rev. 635 (2012).
47. Sound Record­ings Report, supra note 13, at 89–90.
48. See Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 88 (“Plain­tiffs argued in the dis­trict court, with suc­cess, and argue again on this appeal, that the inter­re­la­tion­ship of § 301(c) with the safe har­bor pro­vi­sion of § 512(c) requires that the lat­ter be inter­pret­ed to have no appli­ca­tion to pre-1972 sound recordings.”).
49. Id. at 92.
50. 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(1).
51. See 3 Patry on Copy­right 9:1 (2017).
52. Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 90. See also MP3tunes, 821 F.Supp.2d at 641.
53. Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 89.
54. Id. (cit­ing 17 U.S.C. §§ 106, 201(a)).
55. 17 U.S.C. § 512(h) (“A copy­right own­er or a per­son autho­rized to act on the own­er’s behalf may request the clerk of any Unit­ed States dis­trict court to issue a sub­poe­na to a ser­vice provider for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of an alleged infringer in accor­dance with this subsection.”).
56. Id. § 101.
57. Id. § 512(j) (pro­vid­ing for “an injunc­tion under sec­tion 502 against a ser­vice provider”); see also id. § 502(a) (autho­riz­ing courts “hav­ing juris­dic­tion of a civ­il action aris­ing under this title” to grant injunc­tions rea­son­ably deemed to pre­vent or restrain copy­right infringement).
58. See id. § 301(c) (“no sound record­ing fixed before Feb­ru­ary 15, 1972, shall be sub­ject to copy­right under this title before, on, or after Feb­ru­ary 15, 2067”).
59. See id. § 106.
60. Id. § 501(a).
61. See 4 Nim­mer on Copy­right § 12B.07[E][3][c][iii][II].
62. Sound Record­ing Report, supra note 13, at 131–32.
63. Id.
64. 4 Nim­mer on Copy­right § 12B.07[E][3][c][iii][III].
65. UMG Recs., Inc. v. Escape Media Grp., Inc., 964 N.Y.S.2d 106, 111–12, 107 A.D.3d 51, 58 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013) (empha­sis added).
66. Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 89.
67. Cf. Sound Record­ing Report, supra note 11, at 131 (“Sec­tion 512(c) does not include any pro­vi­sion explic­it­ly lim­it­ing reme­dies avail­able for own­ers of pre-1972 sound recordings.”).
68. Pub. L. No. 105–298, 112 Stat. 2827 (Oct. 27, 1998). This was part of an over­all term exten­sion that Con­gress passed. See H.R. Rep. No. 105–542 (1998) (not­ing that “[b]ecause this bill will extend the total term of pro­tec­tion for pre-1978 copy­right­ed works by 20 years, to a total of 95 years, a sim­i­lar 20-year exten­sion is to be giv­en to [] ‘grand­fa­thered’ pre-Feb­ru­ary 15, 1972 sound recordings”).
69. See Escape Media, 107 A.D.3d at 59.
70. See 4 Nim­mer on Copy­right § 12B.07[E][3][c][iv] (observ­ing the DMCA was enact­ed in response to 1990s-era media uses such as Sci­en­tol­ogy writ­ings, porno­graph­ic GIFs, and clip art, argu­ing “nobody in Con­gress was actu­al­ly think­ing in 1998 about online exploita­tion of The Bea­t­les, The Supremes, and all the others”).
71. Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 90.
72. Id. at 90 (“It is not as if pre-1972 sound record­ings were suf­fi­cient­ly out­dat­ed [at the time of DMCA enact­ment] as to ren­der the poten­tial lia­bil­i­ties insignif­i­cant. Some of the most pop­u­lar record­ed music of all time was record­ed before 1972, includ­ing work of The Bea­t­les, The Supremes, Elvis Pres­ley, Aretha Franklin, Bar­bra Streisand, and Mar­vin Gaye.”).
73. Id.
74. Id. at 90. See also MP3tunes, 821 F.Supp.2d at 641.
75. Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 90 (“[W]e find no rea­son to doubt that § 512(c) pro­tects ser­vice providers from all lia­bil­i­ty for infringe­ment of all copy­rights estab­lished under the laws of the Unit­ed States, regard­less whether estab­lished by fed­er­al law or by local law under the suf­fer­ance of Con­gress, and not mere­ly from lia­bil­i­ty under the fed­er­al statute.”).
76. Id. at 92.
77. Id. at 99–100.
78. UMG Recs., Inc. v. Escape Media Grp., Inc., 964 N.Y.S. 2d 106, 107 A.D.3d 51 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013).
79. Escape Media, 107 A.D.3d at 55 (cit­ing 17 U.S.C. § 301(c)).
80. Id. at 59
81. Id.
82. See Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 90.
83. See 18 U.S.C. § 512(m).
84. See § 512(c)(3).
85. See Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 83 n.4; see also Devlin Hart­line, End­less Whack-A-Mole: Why Notice-and-Stay­down Just Makes Sense, Cen­ter for the Pro­tec­tion of Intel­lec­tu­al Prop­er­ty, George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty (Jan. 14, 2016),
86. See Mark R. Fratrik, How Will the Radio Indus­try Be Affect­ed by Pre-1972 Music Per­form­ers’ Fees (July 27, 2015),
87. See Google, How Google Fights Pira­cy 6 (2016),
88. Id.
89. See Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 84; Megan O’Neill, Video Info­graph­ic Reveals the Most Impres­sive YouTube Sta­tis­tics of 2012, Adweek (Sept. 10, 2012),
90. Peti­tion for Writ of Cer­tio­rari at 21, Capi­tol Records, LLC v. Vimeo, LLC, No. 16–771, (U.S. Dec. 14, 2016), 2016 WL 7321813, at *21.
91. See 17 U.S.C. § 301(c), quot­ed in full supra note 6.
92. Com­pare Vimeo, 826 F.3d at 92, with Escape Media Grp., 107 A.D.3d at 58. See also Peo­ple v. Turn­er, 5 N.Y.3d 476, 482 (2005) (restat­ing the rule that the hold­ing of an appel­late depart­ment is bind­ing on state tri­al courts).
93. See 4 Nim­mer on Copy­right § 12B.07[E][3][c].
94. H.R. 3301, 115th Cong. (2017).
95. ‘CLASSICS Act’ Would Seek Roy­al­ties for Pre-’72 Sound Record­ings, Inside Radio (July 20, 2017),–recordings/article_81656b4a-6d21-11e7-aa46-336811ed6511.html.
96. See, e.g., Via­com Int’l v. YouTube, LLC, 940 F.Supp.2d 110 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (grant­i­ng sum­ma­ry judg­ment to defen­dant video ser­vice for network’s infringe­ment claims); Wolk v. Kodak Imag­ing Net­work, Inc., 840 F.Supp.2d 724 (S.D.N.Y. 2012), aff’d, 569 Fed.Appx. 51 (2d Cir. 2014) (grant­i­ng sum­ma­ry judg­ment for defen­dant image-shar­ing web­site against artist’s infringe­ment claims); Hen­drick­son v. eBay, Inc., 165 F. Supp. 1082 (C.D. Cal. 2001) (grant­i­ng sum­ma­ry judg­ment for defen­dant auc­tion web­site against film copy­right claims). Cf. Mavrix Pho­tographs, LLC v. Live­jour­nal, Inc., No. 14–56596, 2017 WL 4446029 (9th Cir. April 7, 2017) (revers­ing sum­ma­ry judg­ment for defen­dant social media web­site and remand­ing to deter­mine whether use of vol­un­teer mod­er­a­tors defeats safe har­bor eligibility).
97. See, e.g., Escape Media Grp., 107 A.D.3d 51; Capi­tol Records, LLC v. Har­ri­son Green­wich, LLC, 984 N.Y.S.2d 274 (Sup. Ct. 2014) (grant­i­ng sum­ma­ry judg­ment for com­mon law copy­right infringe­ment of 1970 recording).
98. Mem­o­ran­dum of Law in Sup­port of Vimeo’s Motion to Dis­miss Capi­tol Records’ Unfair Com­pe­ti­tion Claims, Capi­tol Records, LLC v. Vimeo, LLC, Nos. 09 Civ. 10101 (RA), 09 Civ. 10105 (RA) (S.D.N.Y. July 17, 2017), 2017 WL 4100472.
99. Plain­tiffs’ Oppo­si­tion to Vimeo’s Motion to Dis­miss Capi­tol Records’ Unfair Com­pe­ti­tion Claims, Capi­tol Records, LLC v. Vimeo, LLC, Nos. 09 Civ. 10101 (RA), 09 Civ. 10105 (RA) (S.D.N.Y. August 16, 2017), 2017 WL 4100469.
100. See Capi­tol Records, Inc. v. Nax­os of Am., Inc., 830 N.E.2d 250, 266 (N.Y. 2005) (answer­ing a cer­ti­fied ques­tion from the Sec­ond Cir­cuit by stat­ing that that unfair com­pe­ti­tion and copy­right infringe­ment “are not syn­ony­mous” under New York law).