RIAA Wins Copyright Suit Against Usenet.com

NEW YORK — A federal court has ruled in favor of the Recording Industry Association of America in a copyright infringement lawsuit against Usenet.com.

On Tuesday, Judge Harold Baer of the Southern District of New York found Usenet guilty of direct, contributory and vicarious copyright infringement, reports CNET.

Established two decades ago, Usenet's forum offers chat and file sharing, which has included illegal music and movie files, the RIIA and other entertainment groups have claimed.

Usenet was protected neither by safe harbor under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, under which only users are liable, nor by a longstanding ruling that came out of the Sony Betamax case, in which Sony was not held liable for actions taken by users of its products.

Though Usenet attempted to claim a Betamax defense, the judge countered that Usenet.com could not claim protection under the Sony Betamax decision. The ruling specified that companies can't be held liable for contributory infringement if the device they create is "capable of significant non-infringing uses."

Baer noted, in explaining why the Betamax case did not apply, that once Sony had sold a recorder, it was not responsible for the activities of that buyer and the use of that product. The same is not so when it comes to Usenet and its members. Unlike peer-to-peer networks, Usenet actually stored user content on its servers, which appears to have contributed to its losing the lawsuit.

The judge said Usenet.com was not a "passive conduit" by which users shared information without filtering or control, notes Ars Technica. The site "took active measures to create servers dedicated to MP3 files and to increase the retention times of newsgroups containing digital music files."

Reportedly, Usenet employees would joke the company was all about "piracy, porno and pictures," though it's claimed the site filters for porn. Other comments included, "Usenet is full of music and movies, so get your pirate on!"

In a statement, RIAA EVP and general counsel Steven Marks called the decision "another example of courts recognizing the value of copyrighted music and taking action against companies and individuals who are engaging in wide-scale infringement."

"We hope that other bad actors who are engaging in similar activity will take note of this decisive opinion," Marks added.

The decision is a clear victory for not just the RIAA but all rights-holder groups. But whether it can be applied to other file-sharing sites is unknown because safe harbor may, or may not, come into play.