Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Why the MP3Tunes Case Is a Big Deal You Won’t Notice

Yesterday, a U.S. District Court Judge handed down a decision which slapped around a big music label and put an entrepreneur on the hook for what could be a very big legal bill.

What does that mean for the rest of us? In a nutshell: It’s yet another victory for Web sites and services that let users upload and access music, movies and other files under the protection of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

And it gives Google and Amazon additional cover for the cloud locker services they launched earlier this year, without approval from the big music labels.

In practical terms, though, I’m not sure that the decision does anything beyond maintaining the status quo. Had it gone the other way, it’s possible that it would have threatened lots of popular Web sites and services. But since it doesn’t: Carry on!

The most important news is that a third federal court has ruled on behalf of Web services whose users might use it to upload and/or access files that violate copyright rules.

In this case, it’s MP3Tunes fending off EMI Music. But it’s the same basic story as the Veoh/Universal Music and YouTube/Viacom cases: A judge has ruled that the DMCA doesn’t require Web services to figure out which files that users upload have the right to be there.

Assuming all of those rulings stand up (Viacom is appealing the YouTube decision, and this one will likely go back into the court system, too), this will give Web sites enormous flexibility. The rulings don’t give users unlimited access to stuff they don’t own, though, and they do require sites to pull down files if copyright owners complain.

In this case, Judge William Pauley ruled that MP3Tunes, which operates a “locker” music service similar to the ones Google and Amazon launched earlier this year, was liable for some copyright infringement, because it didn’t remove specific songs EMI had flagged. And he said MP3Tunes founder Michael Robertson was also liable, because he knowingly uploaded songs he didn’t own.

That means Robertson and his company could still end up paying significant penalties, even though they won most of their case.

Pauley’s ruling also briefly blessed the construction of the locker service itself. In short, he said that users have a right to upload their own songs to the cloud and play them back, even if the service they used to do it doesn’t have an arrangement with the music labels.

That’s good news for Google and Amazon, because they don’t have deals with labels for their services. But it didn’t seems like they were going to need them, anyway.

Though music executives huffed and puffed after the lockers launched, they haven’t taken legal action against the companies. They also haven’t pursued mSpot, a small start-up that offers something similar.

I’ve seen some reports that suggest that Pauley’s ruling gives Google and Amazon the ability to do a “scan and match” service, where users don’t have to laboriously upload their songs to a locker — instead, the service would simply look at what’s on their hard drive, and give them access to a copy stored on the site.

That’s what Apple’s new iTunes Match service does (among other things). And Apple hammered out a deal with the labels to make that happen.

But as far as I can tell, the only additional leeway that Pauley gives to Google and Amazon is the ability to save storage space on their own servers, by using “deduplication” technology — a “standard data compression algorithm that eliminates redundant digital data.”

That’s not nothing — it’s always nice to save storage space — but it won’t fundamentally change what they’re offering to consumers, who will still have to spend a long time moving their stuff into the cloud.

Big picture: If the idea of storing all of your music on a remote server — so that you can listen to it whenever you want, wherever you want — is appealing, this ruling is good news. It’s also good news if you like watching videos on YouTube, listening to songs on Tumblr, or using lots and lots of other Web sites that depend on stuff users upload. But since you can do all of that already, you’re not going to notice a change.


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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus