Intellectual Property in the Internet Age

Intellectual property laws are based on the premise that an idea by itself can have significant commercial value—and that the innovators who generate those ideas should receive the benefits of their efforts. However, because it is so easy to reproduce words, pictures and ideas in the Internet age, enforcing intellectual property rights is a growing challenge.

In 1998, Congress enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to help make sense of our copyright laws in light of ongoing technological advancement. The DMCA integrated numerous international IP treaties into federal law and also created incentives for Online Service Providers, such as web hosts and file sharing services, to join the fight against piracy.

As a result, online service providers (OSPs) can take certain steps to protect themselves from liability for piracy and infringement by their members:

  • Each OSP that wants to take advantage of this protection must designate an agent to receive complaints from copyright holders who claim that infringing material is stored or disseminated on an OSP’s servers.
  • Directions for contacting the agent to file a complaint must be prominently displayed and publicly available on the OSP’s website. OSPs should also register their agents in a directory maintained by the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • Once an OSP receives a complaint, it must act promptly to remove the offending material.

This system recognizes that web hosts and other OSPs are simply not able to police every piece of information that moves through their systems—and that holding them liable for every act of infringement by their users would cause many to simply stop providing such services. But it also makes clear that OSPs who refuse to police their users or respond to complaints can be held liable for the acts of infringement their service enables.