Two weeks ago, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) notified MP3Board.com that hyperlinks on its site to well-known music titles constitute copyright infringement. On Friday, the company filed papers asking a federal judge to find it had not violated copyright laws merely by posting links to material online.
Legal experts said the case could have broad implications for a key navigational tool on the Web, where hyperlinks are used ubiquitously to guide people to content.
"Depending upon what happens in this lawsuit, this could threaten some search engine activities," said San Francisco intellectual property attorney Neil Smith of Limbach & Limbach. "It also depends upon how far the search engine goes in encouraging or facilitating the infringement that might be taking place."
The copyright law provides remedies not only against infringers, but also against those who contribute to the infringement or induce infringement, Smith said.
Smith said that Yahoo at one time had an MP3 subsetting within the site that provided information to MP3 sites and that there were concerns raised in the recording industry in Europe. But in the United States, this lawsuit may cause worry for some search engines.
"This case is about asking the court to declare that when you have massive search engines or an automated linkage list, mere hyperlinks alone do not constitute copyright infringement," said Ira Rothken, MP3Board's attorney.
"It would lead to paralysis on the Internet--every search engine, whether it was AltaVista, HotBot or Excite, would require human editors with knowledge of all the songs ever made and skilled in copyright law to analyze every Web page and music file in the search engine's index for infringement," Rothken said.
Rothken said the suit cites HotBot as an example of what he said "may be infringing Beatles' content."
Because the MP3Board site includes search engines and hyperlink lists that index a large volume of MP3 and music-related content on the Internet, the RIAA has been demanding since October that the site cease providing the hyperlinks.
The RIAA sent a letter two weeks ago to MP3Board saying that "because the RIAA's member companies own over 90 percent of all legitimate sound recordings released in the United States, it is highly likely that most links containing the names of recognizable artists are linking to copyrighted material."
When the June 2 deadline approached for MP3Board to bring its site into compliance with the law, it was no surprise to the RIAA that MP3Board filed the lawsuit that day.
"I guess they thought that the best defense is a good offense," RIAA president Hilary Rosen said in a statement today. "But legal tactics like these have been tried before and don't work; it won't make their site any less infringing."
The RIAA will file its responsive papers in accordance with standard court procedures, Rosen said.
Although a trial date has not been set, Judge Ronald Whyte will preside over the case. Two weeks ago, Whyte sided with eBay, issuing a preliminary injunction barring Bidder's Edge from using an automated system to search eBay's site for auction information.
The RIAA also filed a lawsuit against Napster for copyright infringement.