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Wikilegal/UMG Recordings v. Escape Media Group

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UMG Recordings v. Escape Media Group[1] is a 2013 copyright decision by the Supreme Court of the State of New York, the state's intermediate appellate tribunal. The case concerns federal preemption of state common law copyright as it relates to Section 512 of the DMCA.[2] Section 512 pertains to internet “service provider” liability and insulation therefrom in contexts of user contributions. The Appellate Division held that Section 512 does not apply to sound recordings fixed prior to February 15, 1972, meaning that service providers are liable for user uploads of sound recordings fixed prior to that date. The decision can still be appealed to the New York Court of Appeals.[3]

Facts of the Case


Plaintiff Universal Music Group (UMG) is the largest record label in the world, controlling nearly 40 percent of the music market worldwide.[4] Defendant Escape Media Group (Escape) owns and operates Grooveshark, an online music streaming service.[5] Media on Grooveshark is uploaded by users and stored on Escape's servers.[6] The opinion states that Escape requires confirmation of ownership upon upload.[7] UMG brought this suit for infringement of its copyright interests in many files uploaded to Grooveshark.[8] A portion of those files were fixed prior to February 15, 1972.[9]



The case concerns the interplay of two statutes.

The first, DMCA Section 512, insulates services providers from liability for uploads by users. Specifically, Section 512(c)(1) provides that “[a] service provider shall not be liable...for infringement of copyright by reason of the storage at the direction of a user.”

The second, 17 USC 301,[10] covers preemption in copyright law.[11] The section says that federal law is the final word on copyright issues in the United States. However, there is an exception for sound recordings fixed prior to February 15, 1972 (the “effective date”).[12] In the case of such works, Section 301(c) provides that state common law applies until February 15, 2067.

The central question is whether “infringement of copyright” in Section 512(c) includes common law copyright, or if it covers only federal copyright. If the former is true, Escape Media is not liable for hosting user infringements of copyright interests in pre-effective date sound recordings.[13] If the latter is true, Escape Media is liable for hosting such user infringement.

Informing which interpretation to take is yet another statute, 17 USC 501.[14] This statute defines an “infringer of copyright” as someone “who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner as provided by sections 106 through 122 [of the federal copyright code].”[15]

A recent federal case addressed this issue exactly. The decision found that Section 512, which protects service providers from liability, applies to both federal and common law copyright.[16] However, given the American system of Federalism, this decision is not binding on state courts. This means that the New York State court deciding UMG Recordings is able to make its own decision.

Supreme Court Ruling


The Supreme Court – New York's trial-level court – found that state common law copyright was included under Section 512, and that service providers would be protected from liability.[17] The court found no reason, based on the text of the relevant statutes, to create the “legal uncertainty” this would put on service providers.[18]

Appellate Division Ruling


The Appellate Division reversed the decision of the Supreme Court. The opinion reasoned that Section 512, which provides liability insulation for service providers, contravened Section 301(c)'s anti-preemption order. UMG's only recourse in case of infringement, under the Supreme Court's decision, would be traditional notice-and-takedown process. That, says the Appellate Division, is a “limit” under 301(c) and thus expressly prohibited.[19] If the DMCA was meant to repeal Section 301(c), the court proceeded to argue, it would have been clear in its order.[20]

What This Means for the Wikimedia Community


This judgment should not affect the community procedures in place. Copyrighted material dating from pre-1973 is not permitted on the projects just like any other copyrighted content, with fair use on certain projects being the only exception. Therefore, the community should simply remain vigilant to exclude copyrighted material from the projects.


  1. 964 N.Y.S.2d 106 (N.Y.App.Div. 2013). Available at http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1358&context=historical.
  2. Available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/512.
  3. And [[:w:Billboard|]] reports that “[defendant]'s attorney, John Rosenberg, said his client plans to appeal the decision.” Alex Pham, Updated: Universal Music Group Wins Appeal Against Grooveshark, Billboard.com (April 23, 2013), available at http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/digital-and-mobile/1559152/updated-universal-music-group-wins-appeal-against.
  4. Laura Sydell, Universal's Purchase of EMI Gets Thumbs Up in U.S. and Europe, npr.org (September 21, 2012), available at http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2012/09/21/161560048/universals-purchase-of-emi-gets-thumbs-up-in-u-s-and-europe.
  5. Company Overview of Escape Media Group, BloombergBusinessweek.com, available at http://investing.businessweek.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapId=45837115.
  6. UMG Recordings, 964 N.Y.S.2d at 107.
  7. Id. at 107.
  8. Id. at 108.
  9. Id.
  10. Available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/301.
  11. Preemption is the supersession of one law or body of law by another, higher authority.
  12. Traditionally, sound records were not subject to federal copyright protection. To resolve this lack of protection, a complex web of state law claims emerged to protect the interests of creators of sound recordings. In 1971, Congress amended the copyright law to include sound recordings, with an effective date of February 15, 1972. Works fixed before the effective date would not be protected under federal law, so an exception to preemption was necessary.
  13. Provided that they meet the lack-of-knowledge requirements in Section 512(c)(1).
  14. Available at http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/501.
  15. 17 USC 501(a).
  16. Capitol Records v. MP3tunes, 821 F.Supp.2d 627, 641 (SDNY 2011).
  17. UMG Recordings v. Escape Media Group, 37 Misc.3d 208, 216 (N.Y.Sup.Ct. 2012).
  18. Id. at 215.
  19. Id.
  20. UMG Recordings, 964 N.Y.S.2d at 110-111 (N.Y.App.Div. 2013).