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Online music site sues Universal Music Group

Megaupload claims UMG censoring artists with takedown request

Online storage service Megaupload filed suit against Universal Music Group, claiming that the music giant abused copyright law in an effort to get a promotional video removed from YouTube in which artists like Kanye West, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Chris Brown appear to endorse the company.

The lawsuit is being used by critics of anti-piracy legislation in Congress to show the overzealousness of content companies even when it comes to existing copyright laws. Megaupload is a frequent target of studios and record labels, and appeared on an MPAA list of “notorious” foreign websites that routinely host pirated movies and music for download.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, claims that after Megaupload unveiled its promotional video, called “Megasong,” UMG issued a takedown notice to YouTube, claiming copyright infringement and asking it to remove the video. Under the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, user-generated sites like YouTube can gain “safe harbor” from infringement claims if they take down the material quickly when getting a notice from a copyright holder.

Megaupload claims that all of the performers and industry figures in its video — which also included Will.i.am, Sean Combs, Jamie Foxx and Brett Ratner — executed “full releases of any intellectual property rights” to the video, including the use of their likeness. UMG disputes this claim and said it had complaints from some of its artists.

UMG’s “acts in filing improper DMCA notices to materially cause Internet intermediaries such as YouTube to take down the Megaupload song video has cause Megaupload substantial injury and money damages,” the company said in its suit. “Indeed, it appears as though UMG permits recording artists to exercise their views and free speech only when UMG agrees with such speech.”

A spokesman for UMG said the case is “an on-going dispute that surfaced several weeks ago with respect to the unauthorized use of a performance from one of our artists. We heard from a number of other artists, and their representatives, who told us that they never consented to being portrayed in this video. As a result, at least one of them has already sent a takedown notice for the unauthorized use.” A source said that the artist was Will.i.am.

Attorney Ira Rothken, who filed the suit on behalf of Megaupload, said that the company “stands by the notion that they got breathtakingly broad releases from each of the folks who appear in the music video. We believe that UMG’s argument is demonstrably false.”

Rothken added that the company had “a very broad agreement with Will.i.am to use his statements in the context of that music video.”

Meanwhile, supporters and opponents continued their flurry of lobbying activity in advance of a Thursday vote by the House Judiciary Committee on a controversial anti-piracy bill.

Even though one of its key supporters, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) unveiled a series of changes on Monday designed to win over skeptics to some of its provisions, the Internet lobby again came out against it. The NetCoalition, which includes Google, Facebook and Twitter, said that the changes “create new problems in other places and fails to correct some of the original concerns we have raised since the start of the debate,” in the words of the coalition’s executive director, Markham Erickson. A more dramatic protest against the legislation could come from Wikipedia. Its founder, Jimmy Wales, posted a message on the site asking users whether they should stage a “blackout” to send a message in opposition to the legislation.

But MPAA chairman Chris Dodd, appearing at an event at the Center for American Progress, compared the debate over the legislation to the “misinformation” that surrounded the debate over healthcare reform and Wall Street reform. He said that “misinformation — spread both knowingly by those who have a financial interest in the status quo and by those who are well-intentioned and misled — threatens to derail much needed reform.”

“Hollywood is pro-Internet,” he said. “We stand with those who strongly oppose foreign governments that would unilaterally block websites, and thus deny the free flow of information and speech. So I want to make it clear right at the outset that our fight against content theft is not a fight against technology. It is a fight against criminals.”