The Recording Industry Association of America has found a new legal target for a copyright lawsuit: Usenet.
In a lawsuit filed on October 12, the RIAA says that Usenet newsgroups contain "millions of copyrighted sound recordings" in violation of federal law.
Only Usenet.com is named as a defendant for now, but the same logic would let the RIAA sue hundreds of universities, Internet service providers, and other newsgroup archives. AT&T offers Usenet, as does Verizon, Stanford University and other companies including Giganews.
That's what makes this lawsuit important. If the RIAA can win against Usenet.com, other Usenet providers are at legal risk, too.
For those of you who are relative newcomers to the Internet, Usenet was a wildly popular way to distribute conversations and binary files long before the Web or peer-to-peer networks existed. It's divided up into tens of thousands of "newsgroups"--discussion areas arranged hierarchically and sporting names like sci.med.aids, rec.motorcycles, and comp.os.linux.admin. A handful are moderated; most are not. For efficiency's sake, recent posts to newsgroups are stored on the Usenet provider's server (as opposed to saved on a subscriber's computer as mailing lists are).
Some newsgroups, like alt.binaries.pictures, are devoted to the distribution of binary files. Of particular relevance to the RIAA lawsuit is that there are around 652 newsgroups with the phrase "MP3" in their names. (For storage space reasons, not all Usenet providers offer binary newsgroups. Google's Web-based interface to Usenet doesn't, for instance.)
The RIAA sued Usenet.com, which is based in Fargo, N.D., in the southern district of New York. The lawsuit claims Usenet.com encourages its customers to pay up to $19 a month by enticing them with copyrighted music, and asks for a permanent injunction barring the company from "aiding, encouraging, enabling, inducing, causing, materially contributing to, or otherwise facilitating" copyright infringement.
There are some differences between Usenet.com and some of the other newsgroup providers that will help the RIAA. Usenet.com boasts that signing up for an account "gives you access to millions of MP3 files and also enables you to post your own files the same way and share them with the whole world."
Clearly they didn't run that language by their lawyers first.
So will the RIAA win? Thanks to improvident boasts like that, they stand a good chance. One reason the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Grokster is that the justices believed that StreamCast's executives had tried to lure pirates into using the Morpheus application. The justices also said that neither company filtered copyrighted material and "the business models employed by Grokster and StreamCast confirm that their principal object was use of their software to download copyrighted works."
What the RIAA's doing here is a classic litigation strategy: sue someone who a judge is likely to say is a clear offender, and then invoke that decision when targeting someone who's a more marginal case. Usenet.com may be first, in other words, but newsgroup providers like AT&T, Verizon, and Stanford may well be next.