Court rules DMCA cannot override First Amendment protections for anonymous speech

A U.S. federal trial court ruled Tuesday that copyright law cannot be used as a shortcut around the strong First Amendment protections for anonymous Internet users. A judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California confirmed that subpoenas issued by copyright holders under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) must still pass a constitutional test before identifying anonymous speakers. The case seeks to uncover the identity of an anonymous Twitter user ( @CallMeMoneyBags ) who posted photos and content suggesting private equity billionaire Brian Sheth was having a romantic relationship with the woman featured in the photo. Bayside Advisory LLC owns the copyright to the photos, and Twitter was asked by the DMCA to remove the photos, which complied. Bayside also sent Twitter a DMCA subpoena to disclose the user’s identity. Twitter refused and asked a federal district judge to quash Bayside’s subpoena. Late last year, a magistrate judge ruled that Twitter must disclose the user’s identity because the user failed to appear in court to justify fair use of posting Bayside’s photo on Twitter. When Twitter asked a district court judge to overrule the ruling, the EFF and the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that the district judge’s ruling focused only on whether the user’s tweet constituted a fair use of the copyrighted work , but bypassing the First Amendment. The EFF is satisfied with the district court’s decision, which ensures that the DMCA subpoena cannot be exploited as a loophole in First Amendment protections. The reality is that this copyright law is often abused to suppress legitimate speech or retaliate against speakers. In 2019, for example, the EFF successfully represented an anonymous Reddit user who the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society claimed to have posted their copyrighted material and attempted to reveal through a DMCA subpoena. The EFF is also grateful that Twitter is upholding the First Amendment rights of its users in court.

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