How to Avoid ISP Liability

Two Parts:Registering Your Agent with the Copyright OfficeAvoiding Liability for Copyright Infringement

You can avoid liability as an Internet Service Provider (ISP) quite easily. Historically, you could be found responsible for copyright infringement if you contributed to its publication by, for example, publishing it in your newspaper. However, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has created a “safe harbor” for ISPs. This safe harbor protects you from liability if you follow certain steps. First, you must register an agent with the U.S. Copyright Office. Then you must immediately take down any infringing content after being notified by the copyright holder.

Part 1
Registering Your Agent with the Copyright Office

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    Designate an agent to receive complaints. When someone sees that their songs or novels have been pirated and posted on a website, they will want to complain to the ISP that is hosting the website. You need to designate an agent to receive these complaints. If you are a small business, then you will probably be the agent.
    • The U.S. Copyright Office will host a directory of agents. You will need to register your agent with the directory.[1]
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    Download the registration form. The Copyright Office publishes a template that you can complete to designate your agent. It is available at in PDF format. Visit the website and type in your information. You can also print off the form and enter the information with a typewriter.
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    Complete the form. Before completing the form, gather all necessary information. This way, you can complete the form in one sitting. You will need the following information:[2]
    • the ISP’s full legal name
    • every other name you do business under
    • the ISP’s address
    • full address of the designated agent
    • the agent’s phone and fax number
    • the agent’s email address
    • the date
    • the signature of an officer or representative for the ISP
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    Mail the form to the Copyright Office. Once you have completed the form, make a copy for your records. Mail the completed form to: U.S. Copyright Office, Designated Agents, P.O. Box 71537, Washington, DC 20024-1537.
    • Remember to include a check for your fees. It costs $105 to register an agent for your ISP. You also will need to pay additional fees to register the agent for your alternate business names. You must pay $35 for up to ten alternate business names.[3]
    • Make your check payable to the “Register of Copyrights.”[4]
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    Amend your registration, if necessary. You might change your agent at some point in the future. For example, an employee might leave your business or you might merge with another company and need only one agent. In this situation, you can download a form from the U.S. Copyright office to change your agent.[5]
    • The form is available at
    • This form asks for the same information as the other form and can be mailed to the address listed on the form.
    • Also include your check, payable to the “Register of Copyrights.” It costs $105 to change the agent and an additional $35 if you have up to 10 alternate business names.

Part 2
Avoiding Liability for Copyright Infringement

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    Avoid gaining financial benefit from the infringement. You cannot seek safe harbor protection if you deliberately host infringing content and gain financial benefit.[6] For example, you cannot knowingly host infringing work and get a benefit such as people buying versions of an e-book that has been pirated.
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    Realize that you do not have to monitor your ISP. The purpose of the safe harbor provision is to relieve ISP’s of the responsibility for affirmatively monitoring their subscribers. You have no obligation to try to find out on your own whether a subscriber is committing copyright infringement.
    • However, you also can’t get safe harbor protection if you have actual knowledge of copyright infringement.[7] Should you become aware that infringing material has been posted on your network, you should remove it—regardless of whether the copyright holder notifies you.
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    Respond promptly to any “takedown” notices. When someone sees their pirated work on a website, they will find the ISP that is hosting the website and then search for that ISP’s registered agent. The person can then send a takedown notice to the ISP agent. In this notice, the person will identify the infringing work that appears on your network and include their contact information.
    • The notice should also state that the person is complaining in “good faith” and that the information is accurate “under penalty of perjury.” It also must contain a signature of the copyright holder or the person’s authorized agent.[8]
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    Treat imperfect takedown notices seriously. Federal courts disagree about what happens if someone sends an imperfect takedown notice. For example, someone might include all information except for a statement that they are filing in good faith. Some courts have said that you can ignore imperfect notices, while other courts have said that the notice only needs to “substantially comply” with the requirements.[9]
    • To protect yourself, you should take all notices received seriously. If you can identify the content they are referring to, then take it down and follow up with the subscriber. If you can’t identify what content is allegedly infringing, then ask the person who filed the takedown notice for more detail.
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    Remove the content immediately. You will not be liable for copyright infringement as an ISP if you immediately remove the content or otherwise block the subscriber who uploaded it.[10] Come up with a policy where you review any takedown notices first thing in the morning or as the last thing before you go home. This way, you will get in the habit of addressing possible infringement issues in a timely manner.
    • You need to adopt a “take down first, ask questions later” attitude. Admittedly, some claims of copyright infringement will be false. Some people will send takedown notices simply to harass a competitor. However, to protect yourself, you need to first take the content down.
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    Terminate the infringer’s account, if necessary. The DMCA also requires that you have policies in place for terminating the subscriber’s account.[11] After you take the content down, you should contact the subscriber who posted it. Ask the person to show you proof of their copyright.
    • If the subscriber can show you proof of their copyright, then you do not need to terminate the infringer’s account. You can also put the content back up.
    • Ideally, the subscriber will be able to produce proof of copyright registration.


  • In the United States, an ISP is also protected from defamation lawsuits. Traditionally, a newspaper is liable if it reprints someone’s defamatory statements. However, under the Communications Decency Act, ISPs are not treated like newspapers for purposes of defamation or obscenity.[12]
  • Many copyright holders will send takedown notices by email. Accordingly, you should make sure that the email address you list on your registration is a generic email address which multiple employees can access. If the agent leaves for another job, then you might forget to change the email address listed on your registration. In this situation, takedown notices could pile up in the ex-employee’s inbox.


  • Internet content can be viewed around the globe, and other nations do not protect ISPs in the same way that the United States does. Accordingly, you could be liable for copyright infringement or defamation if it is read outside the United States. You should contact a lawyer immediately if someone outside the United States sues you.

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Categories: Civil Litigation