MP3Tunes Court Decision Could Be a Big Win for Music Lockers

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In what could become a landmark court decision, New York district court Judge William Pauley has ruled that music locker service MP3Tunes does indeed qualify as a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) “safe haven,” thwarting attacks by music labels against the service. In their reporting, Ars Technica says that the ruling could bolster the arguments of other music locker services like Google and Amazon that their activities are legal, pending an inevitable appeal.

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For those unaware, music lockers are online services that allow users to upload their digital music to remote servers and then stream that music from a computer or mobile device. MP3Tunes, the brainchild of Michael Robertson, gives users this uploading and streaming ability, but also a service called sideload.com to search for tracks already available online and transfer them into the users’ lockers.

In their suit, lead plaintiff EMI maintained that streaming user-uploaded tracks without a license from the music’s copyright owner is illegal. Furthermore, they claimed the sideload.com service gave users access to music they had not paid for, thus perpetuating piracy. The suit also attacked MP3Tunes’ use of a process called “deduplification” where instead of hosting thousands of copies of a song, such as Richard Harris’ MacArthur’s Park, the service hosts one copy and streams it to multiple users. 

In their defense, MP3Tunes refuted these claims by claiming that their site and services qualified as a “safe haven” under the DMCA. This caveat gives websites immunity from copyright liability provided that they quickly remove infringing content when alerted by music labels, as well as a few other criteria. In the end, Judge Pauley sided with MP3Tunes on this point.

In his decision, Judge Pauley said that the DMCA does not place an obligation on MP3Tunes to screen content found through sideload.com for illegally uploaded tracks. However, they must continue to act on complaints from record labels, and not include sites which use certain keywords (“bootleg,” etc.) in the sideload.com results. Judge Pauley also dismissed EMI’s claim that MP3Tunes had directly benefitted from infringing content in music lockers since users, not MP3Tunes, uploaded the tracks.

The decision relating to deduplification is particularly good news for music locker services, since it rejects the belief that streaming a single copy of a file to multiple users constitutes a copyright breaking public performance. Ars Technica writes:

Judge Pauley soundly rejected that line of reasoning, writing that “MP3tunes does not use a ‘master copy’ to store or play back songs stored in its lockers. Instead, MP3tunes uses a standard data compression algorithm that eliminates redundant digital data.”

However, Judge Pauley did not entirely side with MP3Tunes. On points relating to delinquent takedowns of infriging material by MP3Tunes, the judge sided with EMI and the record labels. Furthermore, Judge Pauley agreed with EMI that MP3Tunes founder Michael Robertson was personally liable for uploading copyrighted content through sideload.com. While this is a win for EMI, it does place the obligation on labels to find offending content and not on the streaming services.

Unfortunately for MP3Tunes, the decision does not include what penalties they will face for the offending tracks they did not remove. This does place the company’s future on somewhat uncertain ground. However, the claims on which the judge did side with MP3Tunes will likely help other music locker services thrive. Those services now have a court decision to point to for future legal cases with copyright holders seeking to shut them down. Moreover, this experience may have left a sour taste in the mouthes of EMI and the other labels involved, perhaps making them less likely to sue in the future.

We’ll just have to see how things shake out in the appeals process.

(Ars Technica via Uproxx)


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