Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Another Music Start-Up Sued: EMI Takes Grooveshark to Court

Digital music start-ups seem to come in two flavors these days: Those being sued by the major music labels and those with expensive licensing deals they can’t afford.

But for some reason, plucky Grooveshark, which runs a very nice, free streaming music service, has stayed out of both of those buckets until now. I’ve confirmed that EMI Music Group is suing the site–whose motto is “Play any song in the world, for free!”–for copyright violation.

The label filed suit against Gainesville, Fla.-based Grooveshark in a New York court on May 8. I don’t have a copy of the complaint yet, but if you feel like sharing, hit me at or use the blind tip box here. No comment from EMI, but Grooveshark sent me a very long statement, which I’ve printed at the bottom of the post.

The takeaway: Grooveshark says it was working on a licensing deal with EMI and now finds itself in court instead. The company does refer to deals with “many artists, labels and publishers,” but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t have deals with any of the other three majors–Warner Music Group (WMG), Universal Music Group, or Sony (SNE)–either.

Grooveshark started out as a peer-to-peer file-sharing start-up in 2006, and has since morphed into a streaming model. When I talked to marketing VP Joshua Bonnain in May, he told me the company was primarily funded by friends and family–most of the company’s employees are either students at or graduates of the University of Florida, he said. But he also said the company had received a “substantial investment from a large party” that he wouldn’t identify.

Bonnain said the site, which generates at least some ad revenue, planned on splitting half of it with the copyright owners of the music it played. But I was never clear about how that was going to work since Grooveshark doesn’t have deals with the majors. Then again, Bonnain didn’t tell me that the company had been sued a few days before we talked, either.

In the music world, negotiations don’t preclude suits and vice versa; Warner was, at one point, suing iMeem, but then became an investor in the site. Same thing with Universal and News Corp.’s (NWS) MySpace. The only real question I’ve had is why the big guys haven’t gone after Grooveshark yet. I’ve been asking label folks about the start-up since November and I’ve only gotten shrugs for an answer.

Anyway, as I said, it’s very nice service, and it would be a shame if the labels can’t figure out a way to work with it or help it survive. But the odds of that happening, based on the unpleasant history of digital music start-ups to date, are very low. So enjoy this themed playlist I created with the site’s help, which features music from all four majors, while you can. Grooveshark’s statement is below.

For the past year, Grooveshark has been in talks with EMI Records and other copyright holders to negotiate licensing agreements for the use of their content. We are pleased to announce that over the past few months Grooveshark successfully concluded mutually bene?cial agreements with many artists, labels, and publishers that we hope to be a template for other such agreements with additional copyright holders.

Recently, EMI Records chose to abandon the template we’ve built with the help of other major copyright holders and opted for their traditional intimidation tactic of ?ling a lawsuit as a negotiating tool. We ?nd the use of this negotiating strategy counterproductive, as Grooveshark has been willing to conclude an agreement with EMI Records that is economically sustainable for both EMI Records and a start-up company the size of Grooveshark.

Grooveshark is run by a group of young and passionate musicians. We love music, we make music, and we believe that the use of all music should be paid for. We adopted this core philosophy at our inception and to date have concluded agreements with hundreds of record labels, major US performance rights organizations, and thousands of independent artists who support Grooveshark’s business model. (See: Grooveshark Artists)

As musicians, we support the rights of copyright holders and strive to sign sustainable agreements with all content owners, ensuring that all artists get paid– or we agree to remove content from our system in accordance with our DMCA Takedown Policy. We hope that EMI Records eventually follows the lead of the many forward-thinking labels we are already working with, who would rather get their artists exposure and a fair share of our revenue than block content access and force customers to illegal networks.

We understand that the economy of the digital music business is in a state of ?ux, and we hope to help ease this transition by providing the required new tools and services that lead to the next generation of the music industry. We respect the ownership rights of the major labels and publishers, and our core mission has always been to compete with piracy by offering a service that is genuinely better than what illegal networks offer, while also ensuring fair payment to copyright holders. Our next important step on our road to success is to conclude a mutually bene?cial agreement with EMI Records that is sustainable for both EMI and Grooveshark.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik