GitHub stuffs $1m in Stanford Law School's pocket to provide free legal advice to DMCA-hit developers

Fellowship funding comes in the wake of Youtube-DL fiasco


GitHub has pledged $1m to, among other things, provide developers facing copyright takedown claims with free legal advice from a top US university, it announced on Tuesday.

The donation will fund, for two years at least, the GitHub Developer Rights Fellowship at Stanford Law School's Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic. The money will be used to hire a fellow at the clinic to carry out academic research and raise awareness of issues with America's Digital Millennium Copyright Act; teach students how to work with developers in this area; and provide the aforementioned legal counsel to programmers who have received a DMCA takedown.

"When a developer’s project is the subject of a takedown, it can be stressful for the developer, and doubly so since the takedown may involve complex legal issues that the developer does not have the time or resources to fight," a GitHub spokesperson told The Register. "At times, it’s often simpler to remove the code from public view and consumption.

"GitHub’s whole purpose is to help developers, and we want to enable developers to have access to legal expertise in such times. When we notify a developer of a valid takedown claim, we will also offer a referral to receive independent legal consultation with Stanford Law School’s Juelsgaard Clinic at no cost to them."

The clinic and its fellow "will then work with the developer in appropriate cases to determine what courses of action are available," we're told.

GitHub said last year it would stump up a million bucks – beer money for the Microsoft-owned corporation – for a defense fund for open-source developers, and so the announcement this week is essentially fleshing out that promise.

This action was partially prompted by last year's clash with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

The body sent GitHub a DMCA takedown request for the repository of YouTube-DL, an open-source tool for downloading and storing YouTube videos. The RIAA argued the primary use of the software was to “reproduce and distribute music videos and sound recordings owned by [RIAA-affiliated record companies] without authorization.” That is to say, the source code did not contain any direct infringements, just that it could be used to infringe copyright. The program's unit tests included commands to download copyrighted music tracks by Taylor Swift and others from YouTube.

The tool's source code was swiftly hidden from view by GitHub, and reinstated by the biz once the source had been changed to no longer reference specific copyrighted music on YouTube.

In the wake of that brouhaha, GitHub announced it was overhauling its procedures in dealing with takedown requests involving the DMCA's section 1201, which pertains to the circumvention of copyright protection systems. It's a set of rules GitHub CEO Nat Friedman, for one, thinks is unreasonable because it can be abused to remove useful software from the internet just because it could be used by someone for copyright-infringing purposes.

"Section 1201 of the DMCA is broken and needs to be fixed," he said last year. "Developers should have the freedom to tinker. That's how you get great tools like YouTube-DL."

GitHub says it has technical and legal experts to examine "every single credible 1201 takedown claim," and will give programmers the benefit of the doubt, and allow their code to stand, where able. ®

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