by Jacob St. John
The DMCA, or Digital Millennium Copyright Act, was drafted and signed into law in 1998. Nineteen ninety-eight. Twenty three years ago. The first iPod didn’t exist yet, nor did a company called Viacom (which will be important later), and a little thing called the world wide web had only been launched five years earlier. Considering how much technology has changed in 23 years, we’re beyond due for a new copyright system.
In its current state, the DMCA is awful. It’s abused by every corporation that could possibly abuse it, and its maddeningly inconsistent application vexes everyone who uses social media; that is, everyone. The law was created initially to help copyright holders protect their intellectual property, which is a great idea in theory, but it’s really just a tool used to steal money from independent creators. For example, one unfortunate soul had their video taken down because a car in the background was blaring a song on the radio, a song that happened to belong to music publisher UMG. The segment of the song that played didn’t even last for five seconds, and yet, the video was still removed.
If you’re willing to play devil’s advocate, you might say that UMG has every right to claim the revenue. After all, they published it and own the rights to it. Fine. Uncool, sure, but legal. The one point you can’t argue, however, is the lack of accountability. Let’s say that our friend UMG copyright strikes a video that actually didn’t violate the terms of the DMCA. Should they admit their error and restore the video? Theoretically, yes, but that’s not how it works. Companies like UMG and Viacom- the film version of UMG- rarely, if ever, face any sort of accountability. In other words, there’s no reason for them NOT to copyright strike every video they come across, because they make a profit off of every single claim they submit.
So, in short, the DMCA is outdated, poorly written, and unfair. Unfortunately, it seems that congress would like to double-down on “unfair,” as Senator Thom Tillis proposed a few changes to the act. Instead of making it creator friendly, Thillis doubled-down on making the act corporation friendly. He proposed fines or even jail time for violating the DMCA, which, as established, is more vague than a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem. Simply put, if a company wants to put you in jail, it can and it will.
This is the exact opposite of what Congress should be discussing. Instead of giving even more power to the powerful, there needs to be a way for the little guy to fight back. The most powerful tool that can realistically be added to a new draft of the DMCA is accountability. If corporations like UMG or Viacom were punished when submitting false claims, the rate of claims would likely plummet by ninety-five percent and solve the biggest problem of social media platforms like YouTube or Tiktok.
What would accountability and punishment look like? The most basic starting point should be revenue. A company submitting an erroneous claim should give back the revenue that was taken from the rightful creator. If they’re found submitting multiple false claims, then they should be disallowed to claim any more content for a certain period of time.
While this proposed revision would help content creators online, it wouldn’t completely fix the problem, and that’s because the DMCA has a sibling: the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, or COPPA. Like the DMCA, it was enacted in 1998, has good intentions, and contains a large amount of legal loopholes. On the Federal Trade Commission’s official website, it claims that “The primary goal of COPPA is to place parents in control over what information is collected from their young children online.” Essentially, corporations cannot collect information on children 13 or younger.
Again, technology has evolved massively. A study by Common Sense Media showed that 53% of children 11 or younger already have a smartphone, and therefore, easy access to thousands of apps and websites. It’s incredibly easy to lie about your age to create an account for a website, which in itself makes COPPA nearly irrelevant. So, why is it being so heavily enforced on YouTube?
On the site, if you create content aimed at children, that means you can’t earn money from your videos. But what is content aimed at children? According to COPPA, the following content could signify that your video is aimed at children: music, sports, pets, animated characters, vibrant colors, and words like “fun,” “cool,” and “duh.” Yes, you could get fined a hefty $43,280 because you said the word “duh.” I can only hope that they don’t come for this article as well.
In short, two poorly-worded acts drafted while the internet was in its infancy are deciding the fate of multiple content creators, and a majority of the time, the two acts are ruling against said creators. This is a big problem, yet it’s always getting shoved aside in favor of “more important” issues. But the problem is that, to Congress, this act is rarely an important issue. There is hope for change, but it’s likely not coming anytime soon with the only real acknowledgement that the DMCA has had in years is senator Thillis advocating for jail time. DCMA and COPPA have lorded over independent creators for years, and the rewriting of both acts need to happen soon. Not eventually. Soon. Or else the powerful companies and corporations will continue to rule over the internet with an iron fist, with rules bent so hard they might as well be made of silly putty. An internet where anyone can be silenced at any time. You can stop this, congress, by re-drafting the DMCA and COPPA. And you, dear reader, can call your local senator and bring up the importance of this issue. Or you can kiss all your favorite content creators goodbye.