EMI Kills Off More Innovation: MP3Tunes Declares Bankruptcy Due To 'Withering' Legal Costs
from the innovation-must-die dept
We’ve noted how frequently the entertainment industry — especially the big record labels with the help of the RIAA — seem to sue innovative upstarts. They usually do this as part of a two-part plan: they either want to kill off the innovation, or they use the lawsuit as the opening gambit in trying to get a big chunk of the equity of the startup (which they then stifle and kill). News broke recently that online music storage locker MP3Tunes, one of the first of its kind, filed for bankruptcy in large part due to the years-long legal attacks from EMI. The thing is, MP3Tunes basically won its case, showing that the basic service was completely legal. In fact, what MP3Tunes provides is basically the same service that Amazon and Google now offer with their music lockers. MP3Tunes was one of the pioneers in the space… and for its troubles, it gets sued into bankruptcy, despite being legal.
We keep hearing people insist that the record labels are adapting. And it’s true that they’ve been pulled, kicking and screaming, into parts of the 21st century. But the second that anyone comes along doing anything remotely interesting and which provides real value, they freak out and sue. And it goes beyond that. As Robertson describes in his blog post about this, EMI apparently went to great lengths to destroy MP3Tunes, even if it was legitimate:
At every opportunity EMI dragged out the legal process making it costly and burdensome. One example is the interrogation of company employees in all-day inquisitions called depositions where attorneys try to trick people into making admissions. In our case, they deposed not just management but nearly everyone in the company all the way down to clerical help and customer support personnel. They even paid $25,000 to get an ex-employee to agree to a deposition. For management they deposed everyone – some multiple times with me getting deposed 3 separate times.
The legal pressure was not just confined within MP3tunes. EMI sent legal demands to existing partners and potential partners were told they could not work with MP3tunes or risk losing their license to sell EMI music. More than one digital company told us they wanted to work with us, but were prohibited from doing so by EMI. They used their government-granted copyright monopoly to get MP3tunes blackballed in the industry.
EMI spent an estimated $10 million dollars with multiple law firms to arm their attack against MP3tunes in an attempt to thwart unlicensed personal lockers. They know it’s difficult if not impossible for startups to fight long costly legal battles. Their hope is that the startup cannot fund a protracted legal battle and they win by default. This happened with the music search engine Seeqpod, Muxtape, Favtape and many others that have quietly faded away. They know that even if the digital upstart prevails in court, they will be terminally weakened. Veoh won multiple rounds of their copyright battle outright only to be forced into bankruptcy after spending $7 million on legal bills.
As Robertson notes, fighting the legal battle was one thing, but blocking the company from partnering and building out its business was the really deadly part. Robertson, of course, has been outspoken in his criticism of the RIAA over the years, and has been through previous legal battles with them as well. In part, some of EMI’s infatuation with this case appeared to be personally vindictive (they sued Robertson directly as well as the company). Whether or not MP3Tunes could have succeeded may be an open question. But it seems clear that the company had no chance at all given the barriers that EMI put in its place. Of course, during this same period we’ve witnessed the collapse and sale of EMI (in pieces) as well. Perhaps, instead of suing the innovations that would help move it into a modern digital era, it should have been looking for ways to embrace them.