Do Internet service providers have to delete copyrighted material placed on chat boards?

Must ISPs delete copyrighted material placed on chat boards?

Question

I work as a "board monitor" at a major website. Part of my job is to ensure that material posted by the public on our online "chat" board is not offensive, illegal, or against our company's policies.

Lately, people have posted full articles, published on other websites, word for word, without even the copyright logo. Is this a copyright violation? Should I remove these sorts of postings? What do I tell these people if they get angry with me for deleting their posts?

Answer

Posting entire articles is a copyright violation, and you are definitely doing your job by removing them. Copyright law gives copyright holders certain exclusive rights. Among these exclusive rights are the right to “reproduce the copyrighted work”; the right to “distribute copies… of the copyrighted work to the public”; and the right to “display the copyrighted work publicly.”

If a user of your website takes someone else’s article and posts it word-for-word on your website, that seems to be a fairly clear violation of all of these exclusive rights. The copyright holder would have a cause of action against that user.

Your company might also face liability because it is hosting the infringed work. Specifically, your company undoubtedly wants to carefully follow the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Section 512 of the DMCA provides that ISPs (like your website) can avoid copyright liability only if they get no financial benefit from copyrighted material, are not initially aware of the infringement, and remove or disable access to copyright-infringing material as soon as they find out it's on their website.

An ISP that fails to follow these rules could find itself sued directly by the owner of the copyright; in this case, the author of the original article.

It is not too surprising that the people posting will be upset when you delete their content. After all, many posters assume that the Internet is a place for totally free expression and flow of information. What should you to tell the folks yelling at you? Try appeasing them with the following alternatives:

  • Suggest that they obtain permission to reproduce the article (and ask them to send you a copy of the permission).
  • Ask them to summarize the article in their own language; summarizing an article is not an infringement.
  • Point out that they can use limited portions of the article if they do so for purposes of commentary.
  • Suggest that they post a link to the original article, rather than the full article itself, along with a short summary.

Your company would be wise to also develop a formal policy around the content that it will “police” from its users. This sort of clear “terms and conditions” page would give you, as the moderator, a formal document to point users towards. Doing so demonstrates that the rules of the road are being evenly applied, and are clear for all users to see. Obviously, your company needs to balance its concern for copyright infringement with its legitimate interest in keeping its own users happy.

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