Before the Web, there was Usenet. It was the place newsgroups lived. People from around the globe could exchange messages about everything from Russian military history to animal psychology. As the Internet grew up, and tech-savvy newsgroup denizens became a small minority in a sea of Web surfers, newsgroups became less and less prominent, an outmoded relic of the early days of the ‘Net. But even as Usenet newsgroups became less important for sharing text, they became a haven for file-traders. The vast majority of Usenet traffic takes the form of binaries, files which are split into several parts as ASCII text, sent over Usenet, and reassembled at the user end. These binaries account for such a huge percentage of the overall volume of Usenet traffic that many Internet access providers do not allow access to the binaries newsgroups. However, there are services that provide full Usenet access for a fee, typically between $5 and $15 per month. One type of file that lends itself well to this treatment is music in MP3 format. Operating in the obscurity of the distributed Usenet network, users send and receive MP3 files. Now the recording industry has just trained a huge spotlight on Usenet. Fourteen labels filed suit against Usenet.com, a Usenet distributor, in the Southern District of New York. The suit seeks a permanent injunction and unspecified damages on the basis of several claims: Direct infringement of distribution right, direct infringement of reproduction right, inducement to infringe, contributory infringement, and vicarious infringement. The thrust of the complaint (available here) is that Usenet.com is another Grokster, inducing file-traders who would otherwise have been out of luck with the downfall of sites like the original Napster and the legal squeeze being put on P2P networks. The complaint cites Usenet.com’s advertising, with text like this from the Usenet.com website:
You do not have to pay per mp3, so you can virtually download all the files that your heart desires. All you need is access to Usenet and you are all set.
Maybe it is only humorous to me that not far below those lines, you’ll find this one:
All essays copyrighted 2005, Usenet.com
While Usenet.com may look like a fish swimming in the narrow but deep channel the Supreme Court created for spearing infringers in Grokster, this is just one distributor. There are many other Usenet distributors, such as Newsfeeds.com, that appear to be much cagier in defining their services. Just as Usenet itself is distributed, so are the distributors, none of whom seems to command a dominant marketshare. The record labels appear to be going after the low-hanging fruit. Usenet.com does look like a pretty juicy target in light of Grokster, and the labels may be hoping to scare the other Usenet distributors into submission. But Grokster was a fairly narrow ruling that punished the inducement rather than the distribution itself. Even if the labels take down Usenet.com, they may have a tougher time corralling Usenet.