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HONG KONG — Music companies including EMI, Sony BMG, Warner Music and Universal Music have lost their bid to suspend Baidu’s music download service after a Beijing appeals court found the Chinese online search giant not guilty of copyright infringement.

Seven international music companies had sought damages and apologies as well as the suspension. They had accused Baidu of engaging in illegal downloading and playing 137 pieces of copyrighted music that they own.

But a lower court ruled against them in November, and in a final ruling on Dec. 30, the People’s High Court of Beijing confirmed the verdict.

Nasdaq-listed Baidu argued that its MP3 search engine was similar to that of other companies and that its searches made no distinction between copyrighted and unlicensed music.

Some commentators have suggested that the Baidu ruling is an instance of Chinese courts favoring local companies over foreign operators such as Yahoo or Google. Yahoo China was recently found guilty of copyright infringement (Daily Variety, Dec 21.)

But music industry sources say that the latest Baidu ruling is irrelevant as the copyright laws have been updated. “We are disappointed that the court (of first instance in November) did not find Baidu liable, but that judgment was about Baidu’s actions in the past under an old law that is no longer in force. Baidu should now prepare to have its actions judged under the new law. We are confident a court would hold Baidu liable as it has Yahoo China,” the Intl. Federation for the Phonographic Industry said in a statement.