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RIAA aims lawyers at usenet newsgroup service

'Worse than P2P'

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The Grokster analogy

But this is the first time the RIAA has actually filed suit against a newsgroup service, following in the footsteps of anti-piracy crusaders in the movie business. With its suit, the RIAA claims that Usenet.com is guilty of just about every form of copyright infringement, from "direct" to "vicarious" - with a stop at "contributory" in between.

"They're accusing Usenet.com of direct copyright infringement, alleging that the service distributes and reproduces content without authorization," Julie Jennings, a copyright attorney with the St. Louis firm Senniger Powers, told us. "But they're also saying that the company induces others to infringe."

According to the suit, the North Dakota company is actually hosting copyrighted content, something pure peer-to-peer services don't do. "Unlike P2P services, which rely on individual users to store copyright content on their personal computers, [Usenet.com] stores the copyrighted sound recordings on its own high-quality commercial servers," the complaint reads.

And it claims that Usenet.com is actively urging users to swap copyrighted songs, citing several public statements from the company - including the one we quote three paragraphs back. "The argument here is that the site is telling people how to infringe and encouraging them to do so," explained Ethan Horwitz, an intellectual property lawyer with the international firm King & Spalding.

This is the same sort of legal argument that the Supreme Court used to shut Grokster in the summer of 2005. But unlike Grokster, Usenet.com may be shielded by the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. "In the Grokster case, we were talking about free-standing software, and that's not covered by the DMCA safe harbors," von Lohmann explained. "The DMCA protects services that are hosting material on behalf of users or linking to material - and this could apply to Usenet.com."

Usenet.com didn't respond to our request for comment, but the company's website insists that the service does not infringe copyrights. "Usenet.com’s terms and conditions prohibit the posting, distribution, or reproduction in any way any copyrighted material, trademarks, or other proprietary information without obtaining the prior written consent of the owner of such proprietary rights," the site reads. And it claims that the company will remove copyrighted content on request.

If the suit actually goes to court, von Lohmann is sure that Usenet.com will stand behind the DMCA. "The DMCA provides safe harbors against all forms of copyright infringement liability, including inducement," he said. "They will argue that they are simply hosting material and that if someone sends them a take-down notice, they are more than happy to oblige."

So it's Viacom versus YouTube all over again. ®

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