More Transparent Content Removal

Every day we receive a significant number of requests to have content removed from sites hosted on WordPress.com. Many of these involve alleged copyright violations making use of the DMCA takedown process, or the publication of sensitive private information. We review every single one by hand to ensure that the processes are not being abused for the purposes of censorship, and are constantly looking to improve how they are handled.

Content Removal Image

Before now, whenever content was removed from sites in these situations, there was no visual indication to explain why things may not be displaying correctly, with visitors confronted with a 404 page not found error instead. This was far from an ideal situation, and as part of our commitment to increased transparency, we are proud to be able to say that this is no longer the case.

From today, when content is removed from a WordPress.com site as the result of a DMCA takedown, or a private information complaint, a notice will be placed on the site in question to explain exactly what content has been removed, when, and why. In the case of images, a placeholder will be displayed. We hope this will help ensure that on those occasions where we are required to intervene, that the reasons for doing so are as clear as possible.

Read more about our DMCA policy here.

Read more about our private information policy here.

In addition to implementing this new process, we have also updated our documentation with new pages on how we approach the DMCA in general. You can find this at the following links:

https://en.support.wordpress.com/our-dmca-process/

https://en.support.wordpress.com/copyright-and-the-dmca/

When Bots go Bad: Automated DMCA Takedown Problems

In the past, we’ve not been shy about highlighting a number of the issues that exist with the DMCA, and recently fought back against its abuse in court. However, it remains true that tackling repeated instances of copyright infringement online can be repetitive work, and it’s no surprise that some people opt to outsource this task to third parties who have an army of specially programmed bots at their command.

These kind of automated systems scour the web, firing off takedown notifications where unauthorized uses of material are found – so humans don’t have to. Sounds great in theory, but it doesn’t always work out as smoothly in practice. Much akin to some nightmare scenario from the Terminator, sometimes the bots turn on their creators.

Be Afraid

Be afraid

We saw this happen fairly recently on WordPress.com, in an it-would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-serious kind of scenario. Attributor.com sent in a formally valid takedown notification on behalf of an academic, demanding that we disable access to a PDF that infringed upon his copyright. Following the statutory requirements, we did so, and notified the user, with instructions on how to submit a counter notification if they wished to challenge the removal.

Within a few days we heard back from the (understandably unhappy) site owner, who explained that they were in fact the copyright holder. The takedown notification was issued by an agency working on his behalf, and their bot had mistakenly targeted the original author’s site.

Ouch.

The confusion was eventually sorted out after the agency retracted the original takedown notice, and we restored access – but not before it was unavailable for almost five full days.

The DMCA notification and takedown process is a powerful weapon in the battle against copyright infringement, but it can also cause severe harm to freedom of speech when used inappropriately. As a result, it is something that should be deployed carefully, and with respect. All too often, overly broad takedown notifications are sent to online service providers in a scatter gun approach, with the financial interests of third party agents (who are routinely paid by instance of successful takedown) placed above the accuracy of the reports.

There is no question that there are a lot of issues involved in choosing to use bots to enforce copyright, but having them turn against you has got to be one of the worst.

Open Sourcing Our DMCA Process

At Automattic, we are firm believers in the power of open source: the release of code (or other works) into the public domain to be used, modified, and shared freely.

One of the challenges faced by online service providers is how to implement an effective policy for dealing with the DMCA takedown process – especially in cases where the system is being abused. We strive to protect users’ freedom of speech, and would love to see others do the same. However, the possible scenarios and requirements can be confusing; the language intimidating… especially for websites run by individuals or small organisations.

As a result, we are pleased to announce that today we are open sourcing our DMCA process docs on GitHub – under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Included in the release is our already publicly available pages for details on how to submit a DMCA takedown and counter notice:

http://automattic.com/dmca/

http://automattic.com/dmca-counter-notice/

In addition, there is also a comprehensive set of detailed ‘predefined replies’ that we use when corresponding with both users and complainants in specific situations.

Some examples are:

  • Informing a user that a DMCA notice against their site has been received, the material disabled, and instructions for what to do next if they wish to challenge the removal.
  • Notification to a claimant that we are rejecting their claim on fair use grounds.
  • A response to an incomplete DMCA takedown, outlining which elements render the notice invalid, and instructions on how to make the necessary corrections.

We hope that this will help demystify some of the issues surrounding the DMCA process, and help others to implement their own.

The updated repo is available here, with the relevant docs filed under ‘DMCA’:

https://github.com/Automattic/legalmattic

Hall of Shame: Portakabin Demand the Impossible

Trademarks are important. They allow businesses to build up value in their brands, and give us the ability to distinguish between competitors in crowded marketplaces. In theory, they are necessary to make sure that people are getting the products or services at the standard which they expect. Naturally, this system requires a means of legal enforcement for situations where a mark is used in a manner that causes confusion for consumers.

However, just as ‘apple’ is still a kind of fruit, and ‘Amazon’ is still the name of a rainforest, a trademark registration does not give the holder the power to control every use of that mark. Protection under trademark law only applies in specific circumstances – something that is vital in order to protect freedom of speech.

Sadly, there are many instances where companies and law firms scour the web to aggressively target any mentions of their trademarks that exist, whatever form they may take. This is something we have seen happen previously on WordPress.com with Janet Jackson.

Recently, we received another such claim of trademark infringement, this time regarding the WordPress.com site portacabincabins.wordpress.com.

In the claim, Portakabin Limited asserted that they had already been in contact with the owner of the site, which appeared to have resulted in its subsequent deletion.

This is what it currently looks like:

Portakabin Trademark Claim

This is a standard page that is displayed when a user deletes their site, and it prevents any other users from being able to use that URL in the future. However, having had the site successfully removed, Portakabin still weren’t happy. In their notice to us, they demanded that we disable access to the holding page URL completely. To illustrate their point, they attached a scanned copy of a print-out of the above screenshot. (Why is it that lawyers insist on doing that by the way?)

We don’t believe that trademark holders automatically gain a right to every subdomain related to their brand on the Internet. Despite there being no actual content on the page, Portakabin were determined to prevent any reference to their trademark being made, including in the actual URL itself.

In this case, there is clearly no infringement from a page that indicates a site is not accessible. Even if the deletion notice was to be removed, or replaced with a 404 Not Found response, there would be no way to prevent users from getting to that page by typing the URL into the address bar.

Sorry Portakabin. For demanding the impossible, you’ve made it into our Hall of Shame.