Several members of the Recording Industry Association of America filed a lawsuit against one of the largest online radio stations, Launch Media, last week. In that suit, the organization contended that Launch violated broadcast licensing laws by giving listeners too great an ability to choose the songs they listen to over the service.
Now rival Net radio stations that offer their listeners some degree of personalization are worried they could be next and are asking a federal judge to support their interpretation of copyright law. Because the U.S. Copyright Office has stopped short of establishing a hard and fast definition of what is permitted and what is not, the courts are the only recourse, the Webcasters say.
"Our only remaining option is to ask a court to interpret the (federal copyright law) so that media companies, technology developers and investors can gain needed clarification," Digital Media Association (DiMA) Executive Director Jon Potter said in a statement.
"We are not seeking damages; rather, we are seeking to participate in the process that will ensure significant payments to copyright owners and creators, and we are seeking legal certainty that will allow DiMA member companies to develop rational, sustainable business models."
The flare-ups revolve around complicated provisions passed in 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which laid out rules for what Webcasters could do online but left out key definitions and payment provisions that have kept Net companies and record companies fighting ever since.
Online radio stations are allowed to broadcast whatever music they want without permission from the copyright owners, as long as they agree to pay royalties later. But to take advantage of this blanket license, they are barred from offering "interactive" services that allow consumers to choose when they want to listen to a particular song.
But there is a huge spectrum of personalization technology that gives listeners some control over their streams of music, ranging from simply offering different "stations" organized by genres to allowing a listener to rate songs to change their playlists or skip songs that come up on a given station.
The Webcasters put such features, which stop short of choosing individual songs at a specific time, in the category of "consumer influenced" stations, and want the court to rule that this is permissible. The RIAA contends that almost any such personalization features make the streams interactive, and so any station that offers these is likely breaking copyright law.
"They're all doing variations on this," said Steven Marks, an RIAA senior vice president. All the other stations are facing their own lawsuits "to the extent they have not obtained licenses from individual record companies."
Marks declined to say whether the RIAA is considering further lawsuits against online radio stations.
Listen.com, Launch.com, MTVi and MusicMatch joined DiMA in filing the lawsuit in San Francisco.