RIAA aims lawyers at usenet newsgroup service
'Worse than P2P'
The Recording Industry Ass. of America has now attacked a company that provides access to internet newsgroups.
Last Friday, RIAA lawyers chucked a federal lawsuit at Usenet.com, claiming that the Fargo, North Dakota newsgroup service "enables and encourages" people to swap copyrighted music.
The organization that represents the country's big-name record labels is convinced that Usenet.com infringes copyrights in ways that extend well beyond peer-to-peer file-sharing services.
"[Usenet.com] provides essentially the same functionality that P2P services such as Napster, Aimster, Grokster, and Kazaa did (prior to being enjoined by the federal courts) - knowingly providing the site and facilities for users to upload and download copyrighted works - except that [it] goes further than even the P2P services to facilitate and encourage copyright infringement by users," the complaint reads.
Usenet.com offers web mavens anonymous access to over 120,000 usenet newsgroups, those bulletin-board-like server networks that have facilitated online data swapping since the 80s. Some of these are ASCII-based groups that serve up text-based info, but as Usenet.com points out, others are binary groups that serve up files, including MP3s.
"Today’s hottest way of sharing MP3 files over the Internet is Usenet; forget about all the peer-to-peer software applications, which quickly become outdated," reads the Usenet.com site. "Usenet allows everyone around the world to share their files on a worldwide network of peer servers and make them available to any member of this worldwide network."
According to Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital watchdog, the RIAA has long fought behind the scenes to shutdown access to binary newsgroups.
"I know just from talking to lawyers from recording industry lawyers that they've had their eye on usenet groups for a quite awhile," von Lohmann told The Reg. "My impression is that most commercial ISPs have given up on binary newsgroups under pressure from the entertainment industry."
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. ®