Judge Awards WordPress Owner Damages in False DMCA Takedown Case

For the first time, a magistrate judge has awarded money damages in a case involving the filing of a DMCA takedown notice with material misrepresentations. See Automattic Inc. v. Steiner, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 182295 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 6, 2014).

The blog post spurring the takedown was uploaded to WordPress.com─a web-publishing platform owned by plaintiff Automattic─ and included information student journalist and plaintiff Oliver Hotham received after reaching out to question Straight Pride UK. In response to his questions, Hotham received a PDF reply entitled “Press Statement,” by defendant who identified himself as press officer of Straight Pride UK. Hotham’s blog post identified Straight Pride as an organization deeply troubled by acceptance of homosexuality, and included quotes from Straight Pride’s statement that “coming out as straight or heterosexual… evokes emotions of fear, relief, pride and embarrassment.” On the day of the posting, defendant sent Hotman and Automattic a DMCA takedown notice claiming the blog infringed the organization’s copyrights. Automattic removed the initial posting, and investigated additional notices sent by the defendant. Plaintiffs alleged Hotham spent time and money corresponding with Automattic about the takedown notice, and that Automattic expended resources reviewing the notices, disabling the posts, handling press requests, and on the instant action.  Plaintiffs sought a motion for default judgment, claiming that the defendant “knowingly and materially misrepresented” that copyright infringement occurred, that Automattic “relied” on such misrepresentations, and that Plaintiffs had been “injured” as a result.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted Plaintiffs’ motion for default judgment and awarded $960 in damages for Hotham’s lost work and time, $1860 for time spent by Automattic’s employees, and $22,264 for attorneys’ fees incurred by Automattic. “[T]he Court finds that Defendant knowingly misrepresented that Hotham violated his copyright because Defendant could not have reasonably believed that the Press Release he sent to Hotham was protected under copyright. Moreover, there can be no dispute that Defendant knew, and indeed, specifically intended, that the takedown notice would result in the disabling of Hotham’s article[,]” Magistrate judge Joseph Spero wrote in the opinion. In relying on Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., previously decided by the Northern District of California and currently pending before the Ninth Circuit, the court also recognized that  use of “any damage” in § 512(f) prompts the court to construe the statute broadly, and “suggests strong Congressional intent that recovery be available for damages even if they do not amount to… substantial economic damages.”

Although the court awarded damages for the costs of suit and the expenditure of resources dealing with the takedown notice, the Northern District denied monetary relief for Plaintiffs’ alleged damages to reputational harm, Hotham’s alleged emotional distress, and Hotham’s alleged chilled speech.

The oral argument in Lenz v. Universal Music Corp. was held on July 7, 2015. The court should soon offer additional guidance regarding a copyright owners responsibilities with respect to the content of DMCA notices.

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