MP3.com Sues RIAA

Downloadable-music Web site charges music-industry advocacy group with 'campaign to discredit and disparage' it.

Downloadable music Web site MP3.com sued the Recording Industry Association of America on Monday, claiming the music-industry advocacy group is trying to ruin the digital-music distribution company.

"There's been a pattern of behavior with the RIAA interfering with our business," Michael Robertson, chief executive officer for MP3.com, said on Tuesday (Feb. 8).

The suit comes less than three weeks after the RIAA sued MP3.com. That action alleges that MP3.com's new online CD-storage technologies violate the copyrights of artists and labels. If found guilty, the Web site could be hit with billions of dollars in fines.

While MP3.com has established some relationships with individual major-label artists, such as Alanis Morissette (a stockholder) and the Eagles, its dealings with the industry as a whole largely have been contentious since the company was founded in 1998.

The industry has complained that MP3.com pushes for digital-music distribution without regard to copyright issues, while the Web site sees the RIAA as fearful of technology that promises to revolutionize the business.

In the most recent suit, filed in California Superior Court in San Diego, MP3.com charges that the RIAA has "maintained a deliberate and aggressive campaign to discredit and disparage MP3.com and its use of the MP3 technology to distribute music."

RIAA president and CEO Hilary Rosen fired back in a statement, "This is a transparent attempt on the part of MP3.com to silence criticism of its infringing tactics."

RIAA representatives did not return several calls for comment.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for defamation, libel, unfair business practices and other charges. It alleges that the RIAA, and Rosen in particular, have waged a publicity campaign to paint MP3.com as disreputable.

"Nine out of 10 people in this [online music] space wouldn't have filed a lawsuit," said Internet- and entertainment-industry analyst Aram Sinnreich of Jupiter Communications. Sinnreich called the MP3.com salvo a good move for a company attempting to push limits and set precedents in Internet copyright.

"It's absolutely necessary that MP3.com present its side of legal issues in the same context that the RIAA does," Sinnreich said.

At the heart of the RIAA's suit is the My.MP3.com service, which allows users to store copies of CDs online. If a user placed, for example, Kid Rock's Devil Without a Cause into a CD-ROM drive, MP3.com instantly would put an MP3 copy of the album in the user's online account. The user could then listen to "Wasting Time" (RealAudio excerpt) and other songs from the album from any computer with an Internet connection.

The RIAA said MP3.com needs a license from record labels to offer the service.

While MP3.com does not own the MP3 digital-music format, it has helped popularize it by offering free MP3 downloads from more than 50,000 mostly unknown artists.