With last week’s jury verdict of copyright liability against Michael Robertson of MP3Tunes, copyright owners are finally starting to get some clarity around the limits of DMCA 512. The law gives online service operators a “safe harbor” — a way to insulate themselves from copyright liability related to files that users post on their services by responding to takedown notices.
To qualify for the safe harbor, service providers have to have a policy for terminating the accounts of repeat infringers, and — more relevantly — cannot show “willful blindness” to users’ infringing actions. At the same time, the law does not obligate service providers to proactively police their networks for copyright infringement. The problem is that even when online services respond to takedown notices, the copyrighted works tend to be re-uploaded immediately.
The law was enacted in 1998, and copyright owners have brought a series of lawsuits against online services over the years to try to establish liability beyond the need to respond to one takedown notice at a time. Some of these lawsuits tried to revisit the intent of Congress in passing this law, to convince courts that Congress did not intend to require them to spend millions of dollars a year playing Whac-a-Mole games to get their content removed.
In cases such as Viacom v. YouTube and Universal Music Group v. Veoh that date back to 2007, the media industry failed to get courts to revisit the idea that service providers should act as their own copyright police. But over the past year, the industry has made progress along the “willful blindness” (a/k/a “looking the other way”) front.
These cases featured lots of arguments over what constitutes evidence of willful blindness or its close cousin, “red flag knowledge” of users’ infringements. Courts had a hard time navigating the blurry lines between the “willlful blindness” and “no need to self-police” principles in the law, especially when the lines must be redrawn for each online service’s feature set, marketing pitch, and so on.
But within the past couple of years, two appeals courts established some of the contours of willful blindness and related principles to give copyright owners some comfort. The New York-based (and typically media-industry-friendly) Second Circuit, in the YouTube case, found that certain types of evidence, such as company internal communications, could be evidence of willful blindness. And even the California-based (and typically tech-friendly) Ninth Circuit found similar evidence last year in a case against the BitTorrent site IsoHunt.
The Second Circuit’s opinion in YouTube served as the guiding precedent in the EMI v. MP3Tunes case — and in a rather curious way. Back in 2011, the district court judge in MP3Tunes handed down a summary judgment ruling that was favorable to Robertson in some but not all respects. But after the Second Circuit’s YouTube opinion, EMI asked the lower court judge to revisit the case, suggesting that the new YouTube precedent created issues of fact regarding willful blindness that a jury should decide. The judge was persuaded, the trial took place, and the jury decided for EMI. Robertson could now be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in damages.
(Eleanor Lackman and Simon Pulman of the media-focused law firm Cowan DeBaets have an excellent summary of the legal backdrop of the MP3Tunes trial; they say that it is “very unusual” for a judge to go back on a summary judgment ruling like that.)
The MP3Tunes verdict gives media companies some long-sought leverage against online service operators, which keep claiming that their only responsibility is to respond to each takedown notice, one at a time. This is one — but only one — step of the many needed to clarify the rights of copyright owners and responsibilities of service providers to protect copyrights. And as far as we can tell now, it does not obligate service providers to implement any technologies or take any more proactive steps to reduce infringement. Yet it does now seem clear that if service providers want to look the other way, they at least have to keep quiet about it.
As for Robertson, he continues to think of new startup ideas that seem particularly calculated to goad copyright owners. The latest one, radiosearchengine.com, is an attempt to turn streaming radio into an interactive, on-demand music service a la Spotify. It lets users find and listen to Internet streams of radio stations that are currently playing specific songs (as well as artists, genres of music, etc.).
Radiosearchengine.com starts with a database of thousands of Internet radio stations, similar to TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Reciva, and various others. These streaming radio services (many of which are simulcasts of AM or FM signals) carry program content data, such as the title and artist of the song currently playing. Radiosearchengine.com retrieves this data from all of the stations in its database every few seconds, adds that information to the database, and makes it searchable by users. Robertston has even created an API so that other developers can access his database.
Of course, radiosearchengine.com can’t predict that a station will play a certain song in the future (stations aren’t allowed to report it in advance), so users are likely to click on station links and hear their chosen songs starting in the middle. But with the most popular songs — which are helpfully listed on the site’s left navbar — you can find many stations that are playing them, so you can presumably keep clicking until you find the song near its beginning.
This is something that TuneIn and others could have offered years ago if it didn’t seem so much like lawsuit bait. On the other hand, Robertson isn’t the first one to think of this: there’s been an app for that for at least three years.