Digital Legal Top Stories

Summary judgements in MP3tunes case

By | Published on Wednesday 24 August 2011

A federal court in the US yesterday issued a summary judgement on the long running EMI v MP3tunes case, finding in favour of both sides but on different elements of the dispute.

As previously reported, MP3tunes, founded by original creator Michael Robertson, was one of the early music-specific digital locker services. EMI claimed that Robertson’s service required a licence from the record labels and music publishers to operate, and without such a licence MP3tunes infringed their copyrights. Robertson, however, claimed MP3tunes needed no such deals with the music companies.

It was originally thought any ruling in the MP3tunes case might add some clarity to the copyright situation with regards all digital lockers, a topic which has become more relevant this year as major players like Google and Amazon entered the music-specific locker market place.

While in most territories a very basic online storage service can safely operate without a licence from any music companies, because such a service is covered by a user’s private back-up copy right (though no such right currently exists in the UK, of course), some rights owners argue that the minute a user is given a friendly web-based player through which they can stream their music collections to any net-connected device, a licence is needed. Google, Amazon, Robertson and MP3tunes do not concur.

However, in the end the MP3tunes case did not centre on the licensing requirements of such a service, because many of EMI’s objections related to other elements of Robertson’s platform, in particular the facility that allows users to organise and store links to music streams they have found online, whether or not said streams are legal. The summary judgements mainly focus on that links management facility.

The judge partly found in EMI’s favour over MP3tunes’ failure to operate an efficient takedown system with regards its link management service, so that links made by users to unlicensed streams stayed even after the major label had alerted the digital company of their presence. The judge also ruled against Robertson himself for personally posting links to illegal sources of content via his own website.

But there was some good news for MP3tunes, too. The court backed the digital firm’s claims that its links management service was protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s safe harbour clause, so it could not be liable for any users who used the service to link to illegal music providing the company operated a decent takedown system to remove said links when rights owners spotted them.

So, the safe harbour principle applies to link management services providing they operate an efficient takedown system, that much we know from this ruling. But as for the wider debate as to when digital locker services do or do not need licenses from music companies, that will continue.

EMI welcomed the bits of the ruling that went in its favour, telling reporters: “We are pleased that MP3tunes and Michael Robertson have been held liable for infringing hundreds of sound recordings and musical compositions through their websites. The court’s decision confirms that businesses cannot simply pay lip service to the law while undermining the rights of the musicians, artists and writers that create popular music. The decision also proves that company executives that personally contribute to and commit copyright infringement will be held accountable for their actions”.

However, the music major added: “At the same time, we’re disappointed that the court found that MP3tunes was entitled to a safe harbour for some of its conduct under the DMCA. EMI believes that companies like MP3tunes, which knowingly build a business based on stolen music, should not be entitled to any DMCA safe harbour defence, and we’re evaluating our options to seek review of those portions of the decision. We will continue to fight – in this case and in the future – for the rights of our artists and writers, and to ensure that they are always properly compensated every time their music is used in a commercial setting”.

In a long statement, Robertson said the summary judgements were a “victory for cloud music” adding that “few companies have been able to stand up to the record labels attacks and get rulings from the court on key issues relevant to the future of internet music. In this case EMI alleged a long list of ways that MP3tunes infringed and nearly all of the arguments were rejected”.

He concluded: “Overall this is an enormous victory for MP3tunes and digital music compatriots like Amazon, Google and Grooveshark. It wasn’t a complete victory and it’s not a final ruling, because there are outstanding issues and both sides can appeal, but we’re prepared to continue battling”.