Section 512: University and Research Libraries as Rightsholders

Posted July 7, 2020
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Authors Alliance is grateful to David Hansen, Associate University Librarian for Research, Collections, and Scholarly Communications at Duke University, for sharing this blog post based on his statement to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Intellectual Property on whether the notice and takedown procedures under Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) are working. This statement was originally presented on June 2, 2020.

Hansen’s testimony addressed how universities and research libraries interact with Section 512 as both service providers serving a large number of users and as rightsholders who produce creative copyrighted content. The excerpted portion below addresses the first perspective: that of universities and libraries as rightsholders.

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Promoting the creation and dissemination of knowledge is an important part of what our university and our libraries do. At Duke alone, our faculty and other researchers author more than 10,000 articles every year, along with hundreds of books, reports, video content, software, visual works, learning resources, educational programs, and many other types of materials. For virtually all of this content, our primary aim is to get as many people as possible to read and engage with the ideas we are sharing to help increase our collective understanding of the world around us, and of each other. These works of authorship, more than almost any other, fall at the heart of what our Constitution states is the objective of Copyright Law: “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”

In most cases and for most of the published research Duke produces, we aim to disseminate these works with no direct financial return; no royalty. If possible, our authors generally want no financial barrier to stand in the way of engagement with their research, operating under the idea that more and faster progress will be made without those barriers. In many cases, we find ourselves licensing around the controls that copyright law automatically provides. For example, more than ten years ago, Duke Faculty voted to adopt an institutional open access policy that provides for free, widespread distribution of research articles that Duke faculty have authored.

Duke leaves the ultimate decision on how to disseminate scholarship to the individual authors. Many authors post their materials to Duke systems (for example, DukeSpace, our institutional repository). But, many also share through nonprofit repositories such as ArXiv or bioArxiv, as well as commercial sites such as ResearchGate and Because of the variety of content, and the desire to engage our research with the public, we also share content through more popular sites such as YouTube.

Given our interest in widespread dissemination of ideas, for research and academic work our strong preference is a system that is biased toward keeping content up online unless there is strong evidence that an infringement has occurred. The current notice and takedown system does not always accomplish this goal.

First, for some academic works, the ownership of rights is far from clear. Although authors are the holders of those rights initially, they are often asked to license them away at least in part through publishing contracts that are confusing and vary significantly from journal to journal and which can change with some frequency. As a result, some academic authors are unsure of whether they are legally permitted to share their own work online under the terms of their publishing agreement. Many research articles are also subject to pre-existing licenses that attach automatically upon creation—for example, at Duke under our Open Access policy—which provide that authors and their institutions retain certain rights to share and reuse their work. My experience with takedown requests we receive at Duke is that publishers do not take into account pre-existing open access licenses even though their existence is widely known. In the case of a takedown request for an article an author has posted to an online platform, authors can feel uncertain how to respond since they may be unsure whether they actually have retained the necessary rights to distribute or reuse their own work.

These takedown efforts to remove content posted by authors can be highly disruptive. In our role as a service provider at Duke, we only receive a few such requests each year, but other online hosts of scholarly content have become targets. In 2017 the commercial publisher Elsevier, a Dutch-owned publishing conglomerate, reportedly issued 100,000 takedown notices to ResearchGate. ResearchGate is a for-profit site, but most of the content is submitted by academic authors to share for free with other researchers and the world. Subsequently, Elsevier and one other publisher, the American Chemical Society, sued ResearchGate for copyright infringement, identifying more than 3,000 articles they claimed rights to. At least some of those articles are likely to be covered by preexisting university open access licenses. At present ResearchGate reports that it hosts 150,000 Duke authored articles. Unfortunately, Section 512 currently contains few mechanisms to address these asymmetries of power and information in the notice and takedown process. For most academic authors I work with, including faculty but especially graduate students, responding to a takedown notice is an intimidating and time-consuming process that most will try to avoid if at all possible.

Second, and perhaps the most important thing I can convey, is how important fair use is for research, teaching, and for libraries that support those functions. Most research is highly iterative, building upon the work of others. Often, for scholarly publication that means one must reference earlier work by copying—whether by simple quotation in a literary critique, by copying charts or graphs in a scientific publication, or by reusing images in a work commenting or criticizing art or history. These are all common place examples of fair use that academic authors and teachers rely on every day. Indeed, I have found that I seldom review a scholarly work that does not rely on fair use in some way. While the courts have consistently found that fair use supports these kinds of core scholarly and teaching uses, other provisions of the Copyright Act can make exercising the fair use right challenging. For scholarly authors who want to share their work through online platforms, Section 512 is one of them.

Section 512 does not explicitly address how fair use factors into the notice and takedown process. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Lenz v. Universal Music Group Corp., 815 F.3d 1145 (9th Cir. 2016) (the “dancing baby” case) was a welcome development, as it mandated that a rightsholder first consider fair use in order to assert the required good faith belief of infringement when making a takedown request. However, in practice we know that in many instances automated content identification systems are the first method of assessment, and they do not handle fair use assertions well.

This is predictable given the fact-intensive balancing that fair use requires. It is an “equitable rule of reason” that requires careful consideration of several factors. For a recent, ironic, example, YouTube’s ContentID system reportedly flagged a video of a panel discussion of a law school copyright conference hosted by NYU’s Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy. It identified multiple claims of infringement. The videos included several short clips of popular songs, which were necessary for the musical experts on the panel (experts from the well known “Blurred Lines” case) to include in order to explain to the audience how to analyze songs for similarity. Although NYU had a strong fair use claim, ContentID had no way of understanding.

While automated systems certainly have their place, it is important to have adequate processes in place to protect those users, such as academic authors, who rely heavily on fair use when sharing their own research with the world.

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To read more about Hansen’s views on how Section 512 works for universities and libraries as service providers and for his suggestions for how Congress should approach changes to Section 512, read Hansen’s full statement here.