Six Month Sentence For Operator of Copyright-Infringing Lyric & Radio Portals

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A man who earned 300,000 euros from two 'pirate' lyrics sites and an unlicensed radio station portal has been handed a suspended six-month prison sentence by a court in Finland. The 37-year-old must also pay 250,000 euros in compensation to plaintiffs including Warner Music and Universal Music Publishing for copyright infringement offenses.

cassette tapeMost copyright infringement lawsuits filed by the recording industry are aimed at sites, services and individuals involved in the unlicensed online distribution of music.

A case that has just wrapped in Finland touches on an interesting aspect of EU copyright law in respect of simply linking to official broadcasting streams and also a key component of millions of songs – lyrics.

Man Operated Unlicensed Sites For Seven Years

Between 2013 and 2020, a man from Finland operated three websites – lyrics.fi, lyricsfi.com and nettiradio.fi. The first two sites were focused on lyrics for popular songs and had their databases populated by the site operator and the platforms’ users who submitted lyrics for editing and subsequent publishing. During the operating period the 37-year-old man (who isn’t named by the court) did not seek permission from copyright holders to reproduce and distribute lyrics.

The latter site, nettiradio.fi, operated as an internet radio portal. The platform allowed users to listen to the live internet broadcasts of 109 local radio channels via embedded links. These channels were not ‘pirated’ in the traditional sense, since they linked directly to the original source URLs on the broadcasters’ websites. However, visits to the defendants’ websites generated significant revenue – almost 300,000 euros according to the court.

Recording Industry Takes Action

Claims were filed against the man by 15 music and media companies including Warner Music Finland, Universal Music Publishing, Bauer Media, and Sanoma Media Finland. They believed their rights in lyrics and broadcasts had been infringed via the man’s sites and for this they demanded compensation.

The complaint noted that rightsholders had previously written to the man alleging infringement and advising on relevant terms of use for their content. However, this did not yield the desired results and the man and his sites continued regardless. The man refused to admit guilt and the matter was heard by a panel of three judges over three days in January 2022.

Court Finds Man Guilty of Copyright Infringment

Late last week the Länsi-Uusimaa District Court announced that the operator of the sites had been found guilty of copyright infringement. He was handed a suspended six-month prison sentence and ordered to pay 250,000 euros in compensation to the music and media companies.

In respect of the two sites distributing copyrighted lyrics, the Court found that the man was unable to rely on the type of limited liability protection available to online service providers due to his deeper involvement in reproduction and distribution.

“[T]he man had maintained his websites specializing in music lyrics in such a way that, among other things, he had been actively involved in editing the material and moderating the activities of the sites. Accordingly, the District Court held that the man had not merely acted as a platform service provider,” the Court notes.

Embedding Radio Broadcast Links Breached Copyright Law

As highlighted earlier, the audio streams made available by the defendant on his radio portal were not copied or duplicated in any way. The links to the streams were embedded in his site and linked directly to the original sources. Importantly, the original broadcast links were also published on open websites and were not restricted to registered or subscription customers.

This means that, under EU law, the defendant did not make the copyrighted content available to a ‘new audience’, something that many big copyright cases reference when determining liability for infringement. However, that does not mean that framing or embedding content is automatically non-infringing.

A 2021 ruling by the EU Court of Justice found that embedding content in a third-party website can be infringing, if rightsholders have expressed opposition to it. In this case the man was informed by the rightsholders in advance that they did not consent to this type of use.

Under these conditions, embedding the streaming links constituted a “communication to the public” of restricted content, a breach of EU copyright law.

“The man has been deemed aware of these prohibitions and has continued to act in spite of them,” the Court found, noting that the defendant reaped the benefits of his own on-site advertising instead.

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