Hector Postigo, author of The Digital Rights Movement: The Role of Technology in Subverting Digital Copyright, discusses Grooveshark, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “Safe Harbor” clause, and “upload culture.”
About a month ago, news outlets reported that the music streaming app, Grooveshark, had been pulled from Google Play (Google’s App distribution service) for violation of its copyright infringement policies. The app and its related online service allow users to upload songs they own to Grooveshark’s servers. From there the songs can be streamed to anyone with access to the app or to Grooveshark’s online site, creating a sort of on demand radio populated by content uploaded by users.
There are, of course, a number of legal problems with the service and the technology upon which it is built, not least of which are claims by the music industry that Grooveshark and its parent company (Escape Media Group) are engaging in widespread contributory infringement of copyright. Claims by Grooveshark that it is an internet service provider (much like YouTube) and therefore protected from contributory liability by what is arguably a far-reaching interpretation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “Safe Harbor” clause may have found some sympathy in the courts, but to this observer, the deeper issue is how technologies like Grooveshark (looking a lot like Napster circa 1999 without the download option) continue to have traction among users who have “grown up” with industry-sponsored lessons on the “rights” and “wrongs” of digital copyright.
Perhaps what the industry fails to see is that user practices in the consumption of digital content are becoming fixed and reproduced by a matrix of other digital technologies and services that quite literally make an argument for leaky content. Why should a video stay on your phone if it can immediately go up on YouTube? There’s an app for that. Why should your music stay on your hard drive when you can upload it to the cloud? There’s an app for that, too. A host of digital technologies invite users to leak their content out of their original vessels onto other platforms. The social web is built on that premise. The “upload” option has become not only a technical standard on digital devices but also a cultural norm among many users (especially younger ones).
In my opinion, Grooveshark is not like YouTube enough to warrant “Safe Harbor” protection and the music industry is likely to make that argument eventually stick. Google may, at least, be legally vindicated for removing the app. However, Grooveshark is part of a technological ecology that invites sharing, that generally forgoes questions of copyright for after the fact and that builds business models upon an upload culture. For the music industry, that will be considerably harder to curb.