The Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit yesterday against MySpace, the popular social networking Web site, for allowing users to upload and download songs and music videos.
The suit, which also names MySpace’s corporate parent, the News Corporation, comes as the recording industry contends with how to exploit its copyrighted material online. The issue has taken on more importance as services built around user-generated content become popular and generate advertising revenue.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, is seen as part of a strategy by Universal to test provisions of a federal law that provides a “safe harbor” to Internet companies that follow certain procedures to filter out copyrighted works. The law requires sites to remove such content after being notified by the copyright holder.
If Universal can win in court, it is likely to gain leverage in negotiating licensing terms with user-driven services — just at the moment that those services are attracting deep-pocketed partners.
Earlier this year, Universal’s chief executive, Doug Morris, publicly identified the YouTube video-sharing site and MySpace as copyright infringers. Universal successfully negotiated to take a stake in YouTube shortly before it was sold to Google for $1.65 billion, according to executives briefed on the deal who spoke on condition of anonymity. But licensing talks with MySpace recently reached an impasse.
MySpace said in a statement yesterday that it complied with the requirements of federal law. The company said it had kept Universal, a unit of Vivendi, “closely apprised of our industry-leading efforts to protect creators’ rights, and it’s unfortunate they decided to file this unnecessary and meritless litigation.”
“We provide users with tools to share their own work — we do not induce, encourage, or condone copyright violation in any way,” MySpace said.
Last month, Universal filed similar copyright claims against two Internet companies that allow video sharing, Grouper Networks and Bolt. But in this instance, the music company is taking on a Web site that has become a cultural phenomenon, drawing tens of millions of users — and one that some see as a powerful tool for performers to get exposure for their music and build networks of fans.
One of the Universal’s own labels, Interscope Records, has a deal to distribute music by artists who are signed to a label run by MySpace. Interscope released a CD from a MySpace act, the Hollywood rap-rock artist Mickey Avalon, earlier this month.
Universal’s lawsuit comes despite an announcement last month by MySpace that it had adopted technology to identify copyrighted material in order to enable compensation for the owners.
MySpace said separately yesterday that it planned to deploy a new tool that would let copyright owners flag videos posted by users without permission; it said it would remove any videos that received such a marking.
In court papers, Universal noted that unauthorized copies of music and video from one of its biggest acts, U2, were easily available on the site, as is material from an unreleased album by the rap star Jay-Z.
In a statement yesterday, Universal said its music and videos “play a key role in building the communities that have created hundreds of millions of dollars of value for the owners of MySpace. Our goal is not to inhibit the creation of these communities, but to ensure that our rights and those of our artists are recognized.”
Anthony Berman, a San Francisco lawyer specializing in entertainment and Internet issues, said that while the procedures for an Internet company to receive a “safe harbor” under the law were unambiguous, there might be room for legal debate about exactly which sorts of services could seek it.
Mr. Berman said Universal’s case was intended more to press MySpace into a lucrative licensing deal rather than into a real court fight. “It’s a way to get MySpace to the table,” he said. “It’s less about piracy. It’s a lot about control.”