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EMI Court Ruling Bolsters DMCA's Safe Harbor Provision

EMI Court Ruling Bolsters DMCA's Safe Harbor Provision

A judge's ruling on a lawsuit between record label EMI and music locker service MP3tunes has further solidified websites' protections under the DMCA's safe harbor provision -- and also clarified where those protections end. While neither side scored a clear-cut victory, the ruling could affect larger locker providers like Google and Amazon.

By Rob Spiegel
08/23/11 12:31 PM PT

A U.S. judge has ruled largely in favor of music locker site MP3tunes in the copyright infringement suit brought by record label EMI. Judge William Pauley on Monday ruled that MP3tunes did not promote infringement with its online music storage service.

EMI did win a smaller victory, Pauley ruling that MP3tunes must take down infringing files belonging to EMI and remove links to sites promoting piracy against EMI's copyrights. MP3tunes will have to limit its users' ability to add music from unauthorized websites.

This ruling is significant because it could clarify some of the debate over Google's and Amazon's similar cloud music storage services, both of which were introduced in recent months. This decision is the latest in a series of rulings that in some ways have made it harder for the music industry to regulate the Web. The ruling also upheld the notion that websites are not responsible when their users upload copyright-infringing content -- that is, as long as the sites respond to take-down notices.

EMI and MP3tunes did not respond to E-Commerce Times' requests for comments by press time.

Partial Victories for Each Side

The ruling enforces some guidelines laid out by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) regarding online music storage lockers and the storage of copyrighted material.

There was no big winner nor big loser, according to Azita Arvani, principal of Arvani Group.

"Both sides gained partial victory and partial defeat. So one could spin it either way," Arvani told the E-Commerce Times.

"Overall, the ruling seems fair and balanced," said Arvani. "DMCA's safe harbor provision protects operators of digital lockers -- whether for music or other kind of content -- from the copyright liability of the uploaded content. However, the digital locker operators are required to take down any material from their servers that infringes on copyrights if they receive notices by the copyright holders. This has been the operating premise for Amazon and Google's lockers, so this ruling just reinforces that presumption."

Part of EMI's victory was related to the part of MP3tunes that allows users to search and upload content to their lockers from other websites, Arvani added.

"According to EMI, these Websites had unauthorized content that MP3tunes failed to take down," she said. "This ruling validates that Web services that enable customers to store their music online should not be directly liable for copyright infringements, as long as they respond promptly to the DMCA take-down notices."

It's Just a Box

This ruling is just one instance, and future court rulings could change the playing field again.

"The court's interpretation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act indicates that MP3tunes doesn't infringe on copyright," Casey Rae-Hunter, communications director and policy strategist at the Future of Music Coalition, told the E-Commerce Times. "This is based on the fact that the core service is simply a storage locker, and Sideload.com, which MP3tunes operates, doesn't have any interaction with third-party sites beyond aggregating links. I think the court's verdict is appropriate in this instance, but it's important to remember that this is just one ruling by one bench and subject to appeal. Other judges may have a different view of this and other important cases."

The ruling is significant for other locker-type services such as Google and Amazon, Rae-Hunter added.

"It's important not to overstate precedent set by one district court, but for operators of similar platforms, the decision has to be seen as positive," he said. "Of course, it's also important to note that locker services aren't the only game in town -- there are other online platforms that compensate creators and rights holders based on how the music is used. At the end of the day, the digital music space will be shaped as much by consumer preference as court decisions."

A Dent in the Music Industry's Push to Police the Web?

Popular file-sharing services have been growing for over a decade, and the music industry is struggling to protect its property rights.

"Overall, I'd say the ruling -- which is the third time a federal court has ruled in favor of firms offering similar services -- puts a serious dent in the music industry's attempts to regulate the Web," Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told the E-Commerce Times. "I'm on the side of the online providers. I don't condone illegal file-sharing, but the music industry's attempts to quash behavior and intimidate individual consumers has been reprehensible -- the legal equivalent of squashing a fly with a baseball bat."

It will take time for various appeals and cases to wind their way through the courts, King said, and while this is a loss for the music industry, copyright holders will continue the battle against piracy.

"Three favorable federal rulings to date may force the music industry to rethink its position regarding the DCMA," said King. "That doesn't mean players like EMI won't continue to press online music services and consumers, but it could severely limit the extent of their legal options."


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