from the here's-a-big-one dept
A huge and potentially important copyright lawsuit was filed this week by basically all of the big music publishers against the immensely popular kids’ gaming platform Roblox. Although the publishers trade association, the NMPA, put out a press release claiming the lawsuit, it doesn’t appear that NMPA is actually a party. The lawsuit is, in many ways, yet another full frontal assault on the DMCA’s safe harbors by the legacy music industry. There’s a lot in this lawsuit and no single article is going to cover it all, but we’ll hit on a few high points.
First, this may seem like a minor point, but I do wonder if it will become important: buried in the massive filing, the publishers mention that Roblox did not have a registered DMCA agent. That seems absolutely shocking, and potentially an astoundingly stupid oversight by Roblox. And there’s at least some evidence that it’s true. Looking now, Roblox does have a registration, but it looks like it was made on… June 9, the day the lawsuit was filed.
Wow. Now, that may seem embarrassing, but it might actually be more embarrassing for the Copyright Office and raise a significant and important legal question. Because it appears that Roblox did at one time have a DMCA agent registration but, as you may recall, back in 2016, the Copyright Office unilaterally decided to throw out all of those registrations and force everyone to renew (and then to renew again every three years through a convoluted and broken process).
There’s an argument to be made that the Copyright Office can’t actually do this. The law itself just says you need to provide the Copyright Office with the information, not that it needs to be renewed. The Copyright Office just made up that part. Perhaps we finally have a test case on our hands to see whether or not the Copyright Office fucked up in dumping everyone’s registration.
Still, that’s a minor point in the larger lawsuit. The publishers throw a lot of theories against the wall, hoping some will stick. It seems like most should be rejected under the DMCA’s safe harbors, because it truly is user generated content, even if the lawsuit tries a variety of approaches to get around that. Part of the lawsuit argues contributory and vicarious copyright infringement, more or less pulling the “inducement” theory from the Grokster ruling, which basically says that if you as a company encourage your users to infringe, you could still be liable (this is, notably, nowhere in the actual law — it’s just what the Supreme Court decided).
But to get there, the lawyers for the music publishers seem to want to take a Roblox executive’s comments completely out of context, in a somewhat astounding manner. The “proof” that Roblox is encouraging people to infringe is here:
Roblox is well aware that its platform is built and thrives on the availability of copyrighted music. As Jon Vlassopulos, Roblox?s global head of music, publicly stated just last year: ?We want developers to have great music to build games. We want the music to be, not production music, but really great [commercial] music.? (Alteration in original). To that end, Roblox actively encourages its users to upload audio files containing copyrighted music and incorporate them into game content on the Roblox platform. Roblox advertises the importance of music in games and makes it easy for users to upload, share, and stream full-length songs.
But… if you read the article that they’re using for that Vlassopulos quote, it’s not directed at developers and users of their platform. It’s targeted at musicians and the music industry. The whole point of the quote is to let musicians and the industry know that Roblox is open to licensing deals. It’s pretty obnoxious to try to spin that as encouraging people to infringe when, in context, it sure looks like the exact opposite. I mean, literally the next sentence (which doesn’t make it into the lawsuit) is about how they’re “testing the waters” by making a deal with a small indie label to make all of its music available on Roblox.
So it seems to be Roblox saying the exact opposite of what the publishers are claiming. That’s… kinda fucked up.
The lawsuit also tries to spin the impossible task of trying to moderate as proof that any failures in moderation are deliberate.
There is no question that Roblox has the right and ability to stop or limit the infringement on its platform. But Roblox refuses to do so, so that it can continue to reap huge profits from the availability of unlicensed music. While Roblox touts itself as a platform for ?user-generated? content, in reality, it is Roblox?not users?that consciously selects what content appears on its platform. Roblox is highly selective about what content it publishes, employing over a thousand human moderators to extensively pre-screen and review each and every audio file uploaded. Roblox?s intimate review process includes review of every piece of copyrighted music, generally identified by title and artist?to ensure that it meets Roblox?s stringent and detailed content guidelines and community rules. This process ensures that Roblox plays an integral role in monitoring and regulating the online behavior of its young users.
Roblox thus unquestionably exercises substantial influence over its users and the content on its platform, ostensibly in the name of ?safety.? Yet Roblox allows a prodigious level of infringing material through its gates, purposely turning a blind eye for the sake of profits. Rather than take responsibility, Roblox absurdly attempts to pass the obligation to its users?many of whom are young children?to represent to Roblox that they own the copyrights to the works they have uploaded.
Coincidentally, just last week we published our content moderation case study on Roblox, focused on how it tries to stop “adult” content on the platform. We noted that the company is very aggressive and hands-on with its moderation efforts but (importantly) it still makes mistakes, because every content moderation system at scale will make mistakes.
So just because Roblox is aggressive in its moderation, and even if it says it reviews everything, that doesn’t mean that it “refuses” to stop infringement. It just means it doesn’t catch it all. Indeed, the company has said in the past that it uses an automated third party monitoring tool to try to catch unauthorized songs (though, notably, this lawsuit is about the publishing rights, not the recording rights, so arguably a monitoring tool might catch some sound recordings while missing other songs that implicate songwriters/publishers — but that’s getting super deep in the weeds).
Indeed, the impossibility of catching everything — while still encouraging websites to try — is why we want things like Section 512 of the DMCA or Section 230 of the CDA. If you suddenly make websites liable for any mistakes they let through, then you create a huge problem. And claiming that their aggressive moderation implicates them even more only encourages sites to do less moderation in the long run.
But, the publishers don’t care about that. Their end goal is clear: as in the EU, they want to force every website to have to buy a blanket license for music. They basically want to do away with the DMCA altogether, then just sit back and collect payments. They want to change the internet almost entirely from a tool for end users to a cash register for music publishers.
There are some other oddities in the lawsuit. It repeatedly tries to claim that Roblox is liable for direct infringement itself, but that theory seems like a stretch. Even the filings admit that the music is all uploaded by users:
Despite Roblox?s written policies, users regularly upload files containing copyrighted music. The act of ?uploading? a file to Roblox involves the user making a copy of the file and distributing it to Roblox, where it is then hosted on Roblox?s servers.
To upload an audio file, a user simply opens the Roblox Studio and clicks on a tab marked ?Audio,? which then prompts the user to choose a file on their local hard drive, in either .mp3 or .ogg format to be copied and distributed to Roblox?s servers.
It tries to build out the inducement theory by saying that because Roblox encourages developers to use music in their games, and this is the same as encouraging infringement, but that’s nonsense. Nothing in what Roblox says encourages infringement. They’re just saying that sound and music can enhance a game. Which is clearly true.
Roblox makes the process of uploading infringing music extremely easy for users. Roblox even published an article designed to encourage developers to add music to their games, which explains: ?While building a game, it?s easy to overlook the importance of sounds and music.? (Emphasis added).4 That page gives users step-by-step instructions on how to copy and distribute their music files to the Roblox platform.
So what? That’s not telling users to infringe. If anything, it’s saying “find some music you’re able to add to this legally.” You’d think that publishers would be happy about that, as it opens up a new line of business where they could license their music, which is what the Roblox exec was talking about at the beginning. But leave it to the greedy publishers to not want to do the hard work here, and instead try to force a big company into a big payment.
Roblox has already put out a statement saying (not surprisingly) that it’s “surprised and disappointed” by the lawsuit. It seems likely that it will mount an aggressive defense, and it could be yet another important case in seeing whether or not the legacy music industry is able to chip away at another important aspect of the DMCA, and to force all websites that host third party content to buy blanket licenses.
?As a platform powered by a community of creators, we are passionate about protecting intellectual property rights ? from independent artists and songwriters, to music labels and publishers ? and require all Roblox community members to abide by our Community Rules,? said the statement.
?We do not tolerate copyright infringement, which is why we use industry-leading, advanced filtering technology to detect and prohibit unauthorised recordings. We expeditiously respond to any valid Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) request by removing any infringing content and, in accordance with our stringent repeat infringer policy, taking action against anyone violating our rules.?
?We are surprised and disappointed by this lawsuit which represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Roblox platform operates, and will defend Roblox vigorously as we work to achieve a fair resolution,? continued Roblox?s statement.
Of course, this is par for the course for the legacy industry — especially the publishers as lead by the NMPA’s David Israelite. They wait for various internet services to get popular, and then rather than figuring out how that helps them, they sue. It’s how they constantly kill the golden goose. They’ve done it with various internet music services, music games, and more. They’re currently trying to do it with Twitch and now Roblox as well. They overvalue the music component, and choke off the long term business prospects for these platforms, many of which have music as an ancillary add-on.
It’s silly, short-sighted, and anti-culture. In other words, it’s the legacy music industry’s usual playbook.