A new set of federal regulations requires Internet service providers to register immediately with the U.S. government, lest they be held legally liable for pirated material that flows through their servers.
The new rules, which went into effect yesterday, flow from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was signed by President Clinton last week. The law shields ISPs from being sued for copyright infringement based on their subscribers' postings, so long as they register with the U.S. Copyright Office. The provision is the product of negotiations over the original copyright law, and was accepted reluctantly by service provider industry representatives.
"This isn't what we would have wanted. It's a Washington approach to a simple kind of problem," said Dave McClure, executive director of the Association of Online Professionals, a trade group that represents ISPs.
Copyright holders had complained that some ISPs were not responding to warnings about pirated material located on their servers, or were claiming ignorance even after being notified.
"Copyright holders pushed for a requirement that a person actually be physically designated to receive information about infringement," McClure said.
The new law fills a legal gap left by the passage of the Communications Decency Act in 1996. Under that law, ISPs cannot be held liable for slanderous or libelous material that is posted on their services. That provision, which has been tested several times in court already, specifically excludes copyright issues.
The new regulations require each ISP to designate a point-person to receive complaints about copyright infringement, and to send that information to the federal copyright office along with a $20 filing fee. The person's name and contact information also must be displayed prominently on the ISP's Web site.
The rules went into effect November 3. Any unregistered ISP can legally be held liable for pirated material on its site from now on.
The Copyright Office rules are only an interim step in the new law's implementation. Regulators will draft permanent rules and host a public comment period later this year or early next year.