Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Grooveshark Fights a Copyright Lawsuit by Chasing After Anonymous Commenters

A media company is using subpoenas to demand the names and addresses of anonymous Web users. That’s a story we’ve seen before.

But this one has a twist or two. The media company is Grooveshark, an increasingly popular music service that’s also being sued by all of the major music labels.

And Grooveshark doesn’t want information about alleged lawbreakers. Instead, it wants details about an anonymous user who posted comments on Digital Music News, an industry news site.

Paul Resnikoff, the site’s owner, publisher and primary writer, writes about the subpoenas (and posts them in their entirety) here. And Ben Sisario of the New York Times has a good summary of the story. So I’ll try to do my version very quickly:

  • Universal Music Group, the world’s biggest label, is suing Grooveshark over copyright violations, and has cited an Oct. 2011 story that Resnikoff published, along with comments made by one more readers, in its case.
  • The story concerned claims by musician Robert Fripp and his team, who argued that though they didn’t want Fripp’s music on Grooveshark, the company wouldn’t take his songs off its site.
  • The comments in question came from someone who said they were a Grooveshark employee, and that they had specific instructions to upload music from the big labels to the site, without permission from the labels or artists. “And,” the commenter adds, “to confirm the fears of [Fripp], there is no way in hell you can get your stuff down.”
  • Grooveshark is demanding that Resnikoff hand over “any and all correspondence or other communications” between himself and Universal Music over the story. They also want “any and all documents concerning the identity of the First Anonymous Commenter, including, without limitation, that person’s name, address, telephone number and e-mail address, and the IP Address and ISP associated with that person.”

Resnikoff says he won’t comply with the subpoenas. He tells me that even if he wanted to hand over information about his anonymous commenters, he couldn’t. He says that as a matter of policy his site routinely “flushes” any information about anonymous commenters within two days of their posts.

And Resnikoff says that even though the comments in this case contained explosive allegations about Grooveshark, he never tried to verify the commenter’s identity: “What the world sees is what we have.”

In his post, Resnikoff suggests he’ll be protected by whistleblower laws when he fights Grooveshark’s demands. But he tells me that his legal team isn’t sure what laws they’ll cite yet. “We’re just incredibly committed to protecting any informants or sources of information,” he says.

This fight has plenty of interesting gray areas. For instance: What kind of legal responsibility does a news site have for claims that its commenters make? But I’ll let media law experts weigh in on that. For me, the notion that a Web publisher that isn’t directly involved in a legal suit can be forced to cough up names and addresses of contributors makes me shiver.

That scenario also strikes me as similar to some of the worst-case scenarios that SOPA/PIPA opponents have been making in recent weeks — this is a Web site faced with big legal problems over the actions of a single user, right? So I’ll be interested to see if they jump on Grooveshark over this one.

But Grooveshark doesn’t seem to think anyone will get riled up about this. This afternoon, I received an unsolicited email from Edelman, its PR firm. The email contained a copy of the subpoena, and a statement Edelman wants attributed to Grooveshark: “Grooveshark reaffirms its confidence that it will prevail in this litigation and that this filing represents the next step in reaching that end.”

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock/

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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