UMG files suit against pair of P2P sites

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Universal Music Group is suing a pair of file-sharing Web sites over rights to music videos uploaded by users.

In the suits, filed late Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, UMG seeks injunctive relief and legal damages potentially running into the tens of millions of dollars from the owners of Grouper.com and Bolt.com.

There already has been a litany of losers in previous legal actions by content owners, including peer-to-peer dot-coms Napster, Aimster, Grokster, Kazaa and Morpheus. Some have moved into legal, subscription-based business models.

But despite those precedents and related legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, sites including Grouper and Bolt continue to generate complaints of copyright infringement.

UMG issued a statement after filing its lawsuit.

"User-generated sites like Grouper and Bolt that derive so much of their value from the traffic that our videos, recordings and songs generate cannot reasonably expect to build their businesses on the backs of our content and the hard work of songwriters without permission and without in any way compensating the content creators," said the company, a New York-based subsidiary of Vivendi.

UMG filed separate lawsuits naming Grouper and Bolt as defendants. In August, Sony Pictures Entertainment agreed to acquire site operator Grouper Network, and that suit also reserves "the right to add SPE as a defendant once the nature and full extent of SPE's relationship with Grouper.com is known."

In addition to seeking preliminary injunctions against the defendants, the suits seek $150,000 in damages for each instance of alleged copyright infringement. An industry source said that potentially could run damages into the eight-figure range.

Most of the site material targeted by the lawsuit involves music videos. UMG gets a licensing fee from the high-profile site YouTube.com for similar materials.

Meanwhile, it's considered likely that Grouper and Bolt will defend against the suits by citing a safe-harbor provision in the DMCA, which allows certain Internet service providers such as Yahoo! or even Google exclusion from litigation over copyright issues.

That's been the tact in most of the past such cases, but Grouper and Bolt might argue further that the sites' reformatting of user-uploaded music videos -- done largely to make content accessible on iPods and other platforms -- effectively makes the sites ISPs and protected by the safe-harbor provision.

"The lawsuit is without merit and we expect to prevail," Grouper chief executive Josh Felser said in a statement. "Our website is protected by federal law and we're vigilant about taking down copyrighted content when we're properly notified."

A spokesperson for Bolt.com noted the site also features user-created content and said the site has taken down copyright-protected material in the past when advised by rights owners.

"We welcome an open dialogue with Universal to resolve our situation amicably and bring Universal Music to our more than 5 million monthly unique users," the spokesperson said. "The YouTube-Google merger and subsequent partnerships with Universal, Warner and others demonstrate that viable models exist to enable our creative users to enjoy and play with copyrighted content. We do not encourage nor reward our members for utilizing or sharing copyrighted content of any kind."

Andrew Wallenstein contributed to this report.
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