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Eagle vs. shark

Grooveshark gets hooked by a $17 billion lawsuit — and brings the national debate over copyright infringement to Central Florida

Photo: Cover design by Jeff Drew, License: N/A

Cover design by Jeff Drew

Photo: Paul Geller, License: N/A

Paul Geller

Photo: Paul Geller, License: N/A

Paul Geller

In 2009, Grooveshark redesigned again, celebrated the sign-up of its one millionth user and signed its first major licensing deal with EMI Records. In 2010, it was sued for the first time by Universal Music Group, which claimed the company had no right to have a number of “pre-1972 recordings” by artists like Buddy Holly, Cat Stevens and the Jackson Five on its site because Universal owned the sole licensing rights to those songs. In 2011, Grooveshark counted among its partners Barnes & Noble, Sun Records and Crush Management and boasted 35 million users. It was also named the defendant in yet another suit by Universal Music Group, this time alleging that Grooveshark employees intentionally uploaded more than 100,000 songs to its servers, even though they knew Grooveshark didn’t have the license to all of them. The suit says that Geller uploaded 3,453 songs to the site himself, Tarantino uploaded 1,791 songs and Nikola Arabadjiev uploaded more than 40,000. The suit says it arrived at these numbers using records of user uploads maintained by Escape Media Group.

“The recordings uploaded by Escape’s own officers and employees include thousands of recordings owned by UMG, including popular sound recordings featuring UMG artists such as Bob Marley, Eminem, Guns ‘N Roses, Jay-Z and the Black Eyed Peas,” the suit states. “The employee defendants have engaged in this activity at the direction, for the benefit, and under the control of Escape and the executive defendants.”

The suit says the songs were intentionally uploaded to “attract millions of visitors each month, thereby allowing the defendants to profit directly from their unlawful activities.” Since Grooveshark relies on advertising to earn a profit (advertisers include Mercedes, for instance), the more eyes it has on the site, the more money it stands to bring in.

Much of the information in the suit relies on a series of comments made on a post on a website called Digital Music News, in which an anonymous commenter claiming to be an employee of Grooveshark claimed that employees were “assigned a predetermined number of weekly uploads to the system, and get a small extra bonus if we manage to go above that (not easy). The assignments are assumed as direct orders from the top to the bottom, we don’t just volunteer to ‘enhance’ the Grooveshark database. All search lists are monitored, and when something is tagged as ‘not available,’ it gets queued up to our lists for upload.”

In a statement released shortly after the suit was filed, Grooveshark’s attorney, Marshall Custer, called the blog comment “blatantly false” and claims in the suit a “gross mischaracterization of information that Grooveshark itself provided to Universal.”

On Jan. 9, 2012, Grooveshark filed a subpoena demanding that Digital Music News, which has covered Grooveshark’s growth and legal entanglements at length, release “any and all correspondence” between Universal and the media outlet concerning Grooveshark, as well as any documents that could reveal the identity of the anonymous commenter.

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