US Digital Millenium Copyright Act

Boardroom briefing

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DCMA) is a comprehensive reform of United States copyright law seeking to respond to the digital age and the World Intellectual Property Organisation's treaties on copyright. The DCMA makes it a crime to circumvent copyright protection (Digital Rights Management, DRM) systems, sets out principles of 'fair use' in a digital environment, and also provides for service provider liability (including details on safe harbors, damages and 'notice and takedown procedures').

The DMCA was signed into law by President Clinton on October 28, 1998. The legislation implements two 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties: the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. The DMCA also addresses a number of other significant copyright-related issues.

The DMCA is divided into five titles:

  • Title I, the “WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaties Implementation Act of 1998,” implements the WIPO treaties.
  • Title II, the “Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act,” creates limitations on the liability of online service providers for copyright infringement when engaging in certain types of activities.
  • Title III, the “Computer Maintenance Competition Assurance Act,” creates an exemption for making a copy of a computer program by activating a computer for purposes of maintenance or repair.
  • Title IV contains six miscellaneous provisions, relating to the functions of the Copyright Office, distance education, the exceptions in the Copyright Act for libraries and for making ephemeral recordings, “webcasting” of sound recordings on the Internet, and the applicability of collective bargaining agreement obligations in the case of transfers of rights in motion pictures.
  • Title V, the “Vessel Hull Design Protection Act,” creates a new form of protection for the design of vessel hulls.


Intellectual Property Rights, Digital Millenium Copyright ActThe DMCA contains two sections that have been a source of particular controversy since they went into effect in 2000.

  1. The "anti-circumvention" provisions (sections 1201 et seq. of the Copyright Act) bar circumvention of access controls and technical protection measures.
  2. The "safe harbor" provisions (section 512) protect service providers who meet certain conditions from monetary damages for the infringing activities of their users and other third parties on the net.

In enacting the "anti-circumvention" provisions Congress intended to stop copyright pirates from defeating DRM and other content access or copy restrictions on copyrighted works and to ban the "black box" devices intended for that purpose. In practice the DMCA anti-circumvention provisions have done little to stop Internet piracy. Yet the DMCA has become a serious threat that jeopardizes fair use impedes competition and innovation chills free expression and scientific research and interferes with computer intrusion laws. If you circumvent DRM locks for noninfringing fair uses or create the tools to do so you might be on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

The DMCA “safe harbors” protect service providers from monetary liability based on the allegedly infringing activities of third parties. To receive these protections service providers must comply with the conditions set forth in Section 512 including “notice and takedown” procedures that give copyright holders a quick and easy way to disable access to allegedly infringing content. Section 512 also contains provisions allowing users to challenge improper takedowns. Without these protections the risk of potential copyright liability would prevent many online intermediaries from providing services such as hosting and transmitting user-generated content. Thus the safe harbors, while imperfect, have been essential to the growth of the Internet as an engine for innovation and free expression.

Further information