An important legal protection that defends websites like YouTube from being held liable for user-generated copyright infringement has been called into question by a New York state appellate court. Since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed in 1998, companies have been protected under a provision known as "safe harbor" that makes them unaccountable for such content until they becomes aware of it. But now, courts disagree on whether that safe harbor applies to audio recordings created before 1972.

Confusion in the courts

In a case between Universal Music Group and the music streaming service Grooveshark, the court ruled that the DMCA-granted protections do not cover sound recordings that were made before 1972, which as the court points out, includes classics such as The Temptations' 1964 hit "My Girl." However, a court at the federal level determined that safe harbor did apply in such cases, and a separate 2007 federal ruling suggests that the federal court's interpretation of safe harbor probably preempts the state court's decision here, as Forbes points out. Grooveshark believes that these protections are necessary. The company argued that if songs prior to 1972 weren't covered by the DMCA, the safe harbor provision would cease to be effective: companies would become responsible for policing every upload by a user — perhaps a sisyphean task.

The government is trying to fix the DMCA limitations that are causing such confusion. The head of the US Copyright Office believes that reforming the act is necessary, and just yesterday, the head of the House Judiciary Committee announced that the group will begin a comprehensive review of copyright law. For both, the goal is to better understand how copyright should work alongside modern technology.