In a copyright lawsuit filed today, Universal Music Group says it has obtained e-mails and other records that show Grooveshark's leaders led an effort to post more than 100,000 pirated songs onto the music service.
"[The business records of Escape Media Group, Grooveshark's parent company,] establish unequivocally," Universal's lawyers wrote in the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, "that the sound recordings illegally copied by Escape's executives and employees, include thousands of well known sound recordings owned by UMG."
Grooveshark has long said that it is not liable for copyright violations committed by users because of the protections provided by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's safe harbor. If Universal's allegations prove true, however, Grooveshark's DMCA protection could be in jeopardy. The safe harbor only protects Internet service providers from liability for infringing acts committed by users. The law does not protect service providers from their own acts of infringement.
(Update) Paul Geller, Grooveshark's vice president of external affairs, said in an e-mail that the company had yet to see the complaint and could not comment yet.
Universal Music, the largest of the top four record companies and home to such artists as Lady Gaga, U2, and Elton John, has asked the court to issue a permanent injunction against Grooveshark, which if granted would shut the service down.
The label is also seeking the maximum in monetary damages of $150,000 per infringing act. If at least 1,000 of Universal's songs were infringed, the total in damages could be well into the hundreds of millions.
Universal obtained the documents through the legal discovery process as part of the label's previous copyright suit against Grooveshark. Last year, Universal sued Grooveshark in New York state court. For that case, Grooveshark was compelled to turn over the database that stores information on uploads.
The label says it found evidence that Samuel Tarantino, Grooveshark's CEO, uploaded at least 1,791 copyrighted songs. Geller allegedly uploaded 3,453 songs, and Benjamin Westermann-Clark, another VP, is accused of uploading more than 4,600 pirated songs.
Universal's complaint is likely to generate a lot of attention in the music industry. Numerous artists have complained for a while about the ineffectiveness of sending Grooveshark takedown notices.
For a service provider to qualify for safe-harbor protection a company must quickly remove infringing material once notified by a copyright owner via a take-down notice. Some in the music business have been skeptical about the speed with which songs previously flagged for removal reappear on Grooveshark.
In Universal's complaint, the label pointed to the comments section of the blog Digital Music News. In a October 13 story titled "King Crimson Can't Get Their Music Off of Grooveshark," an anonymous writer claimed to be a Grooveshark employee and offered "information from the trenches."
"We are assigned a predetermined amount of weekly uploads to the system and get a small extra bonus if we manage to go above that (not easy)," the person wrote. "The assignments are assumed as direct orders from the top to the bottom, we don't just volunteer to 'enhance' the Grooveshark database."
"And, to confirm the fears of the members of King Crimson," the anonymous poster wrote, "there is no way in hell you can get your stuff down. They are already tagged since you sent in your first complaint. The administration knows that you can't afford to sue for infringement."
Universal did not say in the complaint how it knows the post is legitimate.
The heat has been turned up on Grooveshark in recent months. The blog TorrentFreak reported that a Danish anti-piracy group this month has sought court action to block Grooveshark's site in that country. Also, earlier this year, Google from the Android Market.
Correction This story incorrectly stated what country the anti-piracy group that filed court action against Grooveshark was from. It was Denmark.