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How to File a DMCA Takedown and Protect Your Reputation

In the age of the internet and social media, it's easier than ever for people to steal intellectual property -- intentionally or unintentionally. The trick is knowing how to combat it when it happens to you.

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Managing a brand’s reputation includes protecting the various copyrights and trademarks associated with that brand. Intellectual property is real and valuable, and in a world of over seven billion people, there’s a good chance someone out there is trying to steal a company’s digital assets. In cases where a copyright violation has been identified, the party that owns the copyright can file what’s called a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown in order to both better ensure effective reputation management and protect their property.

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What is a DMCA takedown?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, of 1998 was an attempt to extend U.S. copyright laws to the Wild West — the internet. It was originally an anti-piracy law designed to keep people from using digital technologies to copy and distribute digital copyrighted works but was later interpreted to allow companies to tightly restrict how users use their products. In 1998, celebrated artist and pop icon Prince launched foundation legislation to remove a YouTube video of a toddler dancing to his song “Let’s Go Crazy,” which was playing ambiently in the background. Famously, the peer-to-peer torrent download website Napster was ultimately closed down for its abuse of copyright violations. Although arguments for cause included unauthorized use of material, ultimately the concern was to manage and protect the reputation of the authors, as thousands of cases showed that the brand of the artist, writer, originator or publisher was being tarnished when material was distributed in a degraded form on the internet.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of situations where DMCAs are leveraged to protect intellectual property in media, publishing, social networks and so on. Just last year, Apple used it to get a Tweet taken down that held an iPhone encryption key but rescinded the takedown request when it faced backlash. Clearly, it can be a controversial action, and there can be a thin line between fair use and outright theft. Each case has to be independently verified based on the guidelines laid out in the act.

Since the early days, DMCA takedowns have expanded significantly to apply mainly to online copyright violations (i.e. using someone else’s intellectual property or content). A company that has determined that it has been the victim of copyright infringement, even if the company isn’t located in the U.S., can issue a DMCA takedown notice to the page's web host.

Related: A Basic Guide To Intellectual Property For Every Entrepreneur

What is copyright infringement? 

Generally speaking, copyright infringement is when a copyrighted work is distributed, reproduced, publicly displayed, performed, involved in a derivative work or otherwise used without permission from the owner. 

Some examples of online copyright infringement might be:

  • Recording a movie in a theater and posting it on the internet

  • Downloading music, movies, or TV shows without paying (often referred to as pirating)

  • Using photographs for marketing, blog posts, and so on without the permission of the photographer

  • Lifting parts out of a book and using them in your own work without citing the original author

  • Using unlicensed music in your video or advertisement

  • Using copied software code without permission and without giving credit to the original writer

  • Copying and using any original work in part or in full without permission or agreement

How to file a DMCA takedown

A DMCA takedown will usually follow some standard steps. These steps are as follows:

  • Reach out to the author to try and get the content taken down

  • Reach out to the web host/site owner to get the content taken down

  • File a DMCA takedown notice with the web host/service provider

  • Request the takedown with an ISP

  • Get the content removed from search engine results through the search engine’s takedown process

Alternative methods to removing copyright violations

While DMCA takedowns to publishing authorities can be done at the onset, sometimes the desired result is not accomplished. As an example, if Google accepts your DMCA request, the content will be effectively removed from the Google search results but might still exist on the offending website. Many companies opt for a multi-targeted process by notifying all third parties involved. Additionally, reaching out to the author and politely requesting that they take the information down themselves might be all you need. Sometimes, all it takes is a strongly-worded email saying that legal action (such as a cease and desist letter) will be taken if the copyrighted material isn’t removed upon request.

A polite copyright infringement letter would simply include the details of the exact violation, indicating the name of the publication it is hosted on and the type of media it is (written, photograph, video, etc.) as well as a reference to the DMCA law, followed by a request to take it down if further legal action is to be avoided. This also helps avoid more costly or time-consuming proceedings; after all, there’s a chance the author wasn’t aware of the copyright infringement and doesn’t want any trouble.

Reach out to the host, ISP or search engine

If reaching out to the author doesn’t work, the next stop is the web host and/or search engine. Legitimate hosting sites don’t want a reputation for putting up copyrighted material, so this can be an effective approach. Many web hosts and search engines have a specific email address or website set up for copyright complaints. Of course, there’s also the option to pay a professional firm to file the takedown notice; they’ll generally have a lot more experience and expertise in this particular field.

By filing a DMCA to the host directly, they can enforce the removal of the digital asset from the publisher’s web account. Amazon, for example, would remove a book or product which was shown not to be the property of the account owner. In much the same way, website hosts can digitally remove a page and block it from the public, and Google can remove it from search results.

DMCA takedowns are common

In 2019, Google reported that it received close to half a billion DMCA takedown requests. This is primarily due to reputation management companies setting up bot-based monitoring software to detect, flag and auto submit DMCAs to support the entertainment industry and organizations that are involved in creating a high volume of public material.

Due to the legal requirement to conform to such requests, many web hosts or service providers have a specific department to handle these sorts of complaints, but if they don’t have a DMCA template, they’re relatively simple to create. There are plenty of free guides and templates for a DMCA takedown notice online.

The process can take anywhere from a couple of days to several months, but if these steps are followed and there’s a legitimate instance of copyright infringement, a DMCA takedown can be a straightforward undertaking. If the DMCA takedown is unsuccessful, a company can also try and get the content removed from search engines by filling out their respective forms with regards to copyright issues. Most search engines also have a dedicated department for DMCA-related complaints.

Related: How to Manage (and Repair) Your Business' Online Reputation

Copyrights are implemented for a reason: They protect a company’s brand, its hard-earned reputation and its valuable intellectual property. Bad actors infringing on these copyrights can result in lost revenue and a damaged reputation. Managing a reputation should be top of mind for every company and executive, and DMCA takedowns give a company another tool to protect its assets on the internet.