Is Grooveshark Swimming in the Deep End?

By Nick Solish

Originally published in the Daily Journal on July 28th, 2011

Troubles seem to be never ending for music streaming site Grooveshark.com.  A complaint was recently filed by a group of songwriters and copyright holders accusing the Web site of copyright infringement.  Grooveshark allows users to listen to music via streaming, a continuous downloading and playing of a song using an Internet connection.  It is unique from services like Pandora and Last.fm because it allows users to pick the actual tracks that they listen to, whereas Pandora and Last.fm will play similar tracks but do not give users song-by-song control.

Grooveshark has been the target of copyright infringement lawsuits by big music publishers like Universal Music Group, with whom a case is currently pending.  Grooveshark has also faced EMI Music in court, with whom they are settling.  However, despite Grooveshark’s attempts to make licensing deals with copyright holders, a new complaint has been filed against the company for failure to do so.

Several music copyright companies have sued Escape Media Group (Grooveshark’s parent company, “EMG”) in the Middle District of Tennessee.  Amongst the plantiffs are former Grand Funk Railroad frontman Mark Farner and Larry Weiss, writer of “Rhinestone Cowboy.”  The plaintiffs accuse EMG of copyright infringement, including contributory copyright infringement and vicarious copyright infringement.

The plaintiffs allege that Grooveshark provided its customers access to copyrighted music without having to pay for it.  Specifically, it claims that users can listen to entire copyrighted works using “on-demand streams,” which they define as “on-demand real time digital transmissions of sound recordings using so-called streaming technology.”  The complaint also alleges that Grooveshark actively encourages users to share music through services like Facebook and Twitter, and further accuses Grooveshark of encouraging users to upload copyrighted content to the site.  This uploaded content then becomes part of the searchable database accessible by Grooveshark users.

Plaintiffs are upset because Grooveshark failed to obtain plaintiffs’ “authorization, license or permission” to use the sound recordings on its site.  They also cite EMG’s failure to obtain a compulsory license before copying plaintiffs’ music onto EMG’s computers.

EMG has faced scrutiny in the past for its approach to music.  The Grooveshark app has been removed both from the Apple Store and the Android App Store in the past few years due to mounting pressure from music copyright holders.

Defending against a recent lawsuit filed by Universal Music Group, Grooveshark’s Senior Vice President of Information Products, Paul Geller, wrote an open letter defending Grooveshark as entirely legal.  Geller cited Grooveshark’s policy of honoring “take down claims,” which allegedly put them in full compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  Compliance with DMCA “take down claims,” argues Grooveshark, brings them under the same protection as Youtube.com, who is only required to take down offending videos if a proper take down claim is filed and deemed legitimate.

Geller also notes that Grooveshark has already secured thousands of licenses from copyright holders and is attempting to secure licenses for all of its music.  Finally, Geller cited over two million songs that Grooveshark has taken down in response to take down complaints, as evidence that they are trying to maintain strict compliance with copyright law.  An earlier suit between Grooveshark and EMI ended in a licensing deal, which Geller no doubt hopes will be repeated in future suits.

However, it is unclear whether removing infringing content is enough to put Grooveshark in compliance with the Copyright Act.  Grooveshark’s legal status is likely to hinge on whether it is considered an interactive service as defined in 17 U.S.C. Section 114(j)(7).  In Arista Records LLC v. LAUNCH Media Inc., 578 F.3d 148 (2d Cir. N.Y. 2009), several large copyright holding groups led by BMG sued Yahoo’s interactive radio service, LaunchCast, under the DMCA.  Interactive services under the DMCA are required to pay licensing fees to content owners, whereas non-interactive services merely have to pay a smaller statutory licensing fee.

The Copyright Act defines a service as interactive if it is either specially created for the user or if a user can use the service to find and play a specific song.  Grooveshark’s ability to allow users to pick specific songs and create playlists seems to make the service “interactive” under the statute, which may make it vulnerable in the current suit.

The current suit appears to follow in the footsteps of the recent Universal Music Group suit. In January 2010, UMG brought suit against Grooveshark in New York state court, which is unusual because the case was not filed in federal court and only pursued violations against pre-1972 recordings.  Filing specifically for these violations allows UMG to recover under both federal and state law, whereas post-1972 recordings would only be recoverable under federal law.  A New York case, Capitol Records Inc. v. Naxos of America Inc., 262 F.Supp.2d 204 (2003), held that pre-1972 recordings are protected under state copyright law because 17 U.S.C. Section 301(c) allows recovery for these recordings under state common law or state statutes until Feb. 15, 2067.

It remains to be seen whether the current suit will end in a settlement and possible licensing deal.  However, attitudes in the industry toward alleged music pirates may be changing.  This week, former Google.com chief information officer Douglas C. Merrill, once an EMI executive, said publicly that LimeWire pirates were some of the best customers on iTunes.  He was speaking at an Expo in Sydney about data he had obtained as chief operating officer of New Music and president of Digital Business at EMI.  During his time there, he profiled users of LimeWire, a music downloading service, and found that its users actually were more likely to purchase music than the average person.

The future of Grooveshark is indicative of the future of music on the Internet.  If innovative services like Grooveshark.com are shut down by music industry hold-outs, the future of digital music on the Internet is like to stagnate.  However, Grooveshark users are given free access to copyrighted music that otherwise would have to be purchased, compensating artists and copyright holders.  One thing is clear: Whatever happens to Grooveshark will be a bell-weather for other music streaming sites, and the decision will be watched closely by those within the music industry.

Nick Solish is a lawyer at Bryan Cave and recent graduate of the University of Texas. He can be contacted at nickolas.solish at bryancave.com.

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