Let's say you are a blogger who writes about music regularly and includes links to music in your posts. How do you avoid having your blog censored off the Internet by "DMCA takedown notices" sent out by music industry lawyers (as happened last week to several blogs hosted by Blogger)?

Of course, you could get authorization from all the relevant copyright owners before you post or link to a song. Unfortunately, that's virtually impossible for many music bloggers. In some cases, it may be impossible to figure out who the copyright owners are (consider the problem of live concert bootlegs, rare B-sides, out-of-print material, defunct labels). In other cases, you might have authorization from someone, but it could end up being the wrong person (i.e., an independent promoter or member of the band who doesn't actually have all the rights to give you). And even if you get authorization from all the right people, you could still find yourself on the receiving end of a DMCA takedown from the entity that controls the copyright in another country (because your blog can be accessed from that country).

In other words, it's quite likely that many music bloggers can never be sure that a DMCA takedown notice won't arrive someday.

If one does arrive, your blog hosting service probably won't take your side. The law gives online hosting services strong incentives to comply with takedown notices—prompt responses to takedown notices are often the only reliable shield that hosting services have against copyright infringement lawsuits and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars of damages. No matter how much your hosting service values your business, it is not likely that they will be willing to bet their business to save your blog.

While most hosting providers will let you send a "DMCA counter-notice" to contest a bogus takedown notice, sending a counter-notice can have serious consequences if you're not absolutely sure that you had all the necessary legal rights to post the songs or links in question. Sending a DMCA counter-notice is serious business, as it leaves the copyright owner with few options (other than suing) in order to keep the song down. So we recommend that bloggers research copyright law and, if in doubt, consult a qualified attorney (or contact EFF) before sending DMCA counter-notices.

The DMCA also gives hosting services strong incentives to "terminate repeat infringers." That's why most blog hosting services will delete your account (and thus your entire blog) after receiving multiple DMCA takedown notices. The industry norm seems to be a "3 strikes" policy, although the number of "strikes" can vary. This policy can be particularly unfair when a copyright owner sends multiple DMCA takedown notices all at once, or within a few days of each other — you can find your blog deleted before you even find out who was complaining or can send a DMCA counter-notice. Many hosting providers also mark every DMCA takedown notice on your "permanent record" — simply deleting the file or the link won't expunge the "strike" on your account (generally, only a DMCA counter-notice will do that). So a DMCA takedown notice received for your blog might still count as a "strike" years later (again, this is because service providers want to be able to tell a court that they were good about "terminating repeat infringers," lest they lose their shield against copyright infringement lawsuits).

Of course, you may be able to talk the copyright owner into withdrawing a DMCA notice ("your marketing department sent me an email saying this link was legit"). And there may be informal strategies that work most of the time (like deleting links after a short period of time). However, at the end of the day, it's nearly impossible to be sure you'll never receive a DMCA takedown notice.

With that in mind, here are a few practical things you can do to minimize the disruption that the DMCA process might inflict on your blog:

  • Get your own domain name: Most blogging platforms will allow you to use your own domain name for your blog, which will make it easier for your readers to find you if DMCA takedown notices force you to change hosting providers. So, for example, if your blog is at YOURNAME.blogspot.com, and your account gets terminated, you probably will never be able to use that URL again. In contrast, if your blog were at www.YOURNAME.com, you could get a new account from another hosting provider and keep your URL the same. And don't register your domain through the same company that hosts your blog—that should reduce the risk that you'll find both your blog and your domain name deleted by your hosting provider in response to DMCA takedown notices.
  • Back up your blog, be ready to move it: Make sure that whatever blogging platform you use, it allows you to easily back up your entire blog in a format that makes it easy to republish elsewhere. Have a game plan ready for migrating your blog to a new hosting service quickly if that becomes necessary.
  • Make sure your hosting provider can reach you: If a copyright owner wants to send a DMCA takedown notice aimed at your blog, they will probably start by doing a reverse DNS look-up to figure out who is hosting it. So make sure that entity (whether it's a full-service blog hosting service like Blogger or a colo hosting your own server) knows how to reach you. Keep your email address up to date, be sure that messages from your blog hosting service are "white-listed" in any spam filters that you use.
  • Choose a service that has clear DMCA policies: Not all hosting providers accept DMCA counter-notices—make sure yours does, just in case you need to use it. Ask your hosting provider how many "strikes" it takes before your account is terminated. Ask whether "strikes" drop off your account after a period of time. Generally, you're better off with a hosting provider that has thought about these questions and implemented clear policies.
  • Study up a bit: A little studying up before hand can go a long way towards avoiding problem later. A good place to start is EFF's Legal Guide to Bloggers, which contains frequently asked questions about copyright, the DMCA process, and a host of other legal issues that bloggers might face. The Citizens Media Law Project at Harvard also has a great legal guide online.