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MP3Tunes verdict: Michael Robertson owes millions; will appeal

“Hit” and “slammed” are the descriptors you see everywhere today, conveying the court decision in the Capital Records vs. MP3Tunes lawsuit. A milestone in the years-long trial, the jury found MP3Tunes founder and CEO Michael Robertson personally liable for music copyright infringement. The complex penalty ruling, which could take days to fully evaluate, is estimated to cost Robertson $41-million. Robertson’s legal team will appeal the verdict, which one of his lawyers called unsustainable.

MP3Tunes.com in November, 2005

MP3Tunes.com in November, 2005

MP3Tunes, which was founded in 2005 as an indie-music download store as an alternative to iTunes Music Store, later shifted its focus to cloud storage of music files, similar to cloud-listening systems in wide use today. With a feature called Oboe, MP3Tunes customers could upload files directly from CDs they had purchased. More provocatively, an affiliated feature and site called Sideload.com enabled uploading music encountered on the web at large, un-owned by the uploader.

Sideloading was the service which got MP3tunes and Robertson in trouble. The Mp3Tunes service was itself exonerated of liability, but Robertson himself remained under court scrutiny for his personal use of Sideloading.

Sideload.com in January, 2007

Sideload.com in January, 2007

It’s worth noting that Sideload.com is conceptually nearly identical to a current Xbox Music feature called Web Playlist, which builds cloud-based playlists from songs encountered on any web page. The key operational difference between now-defunct Sideload.com and Microsoft’s Web Playlist is licensing — the Sideload service didn’t have it. Part of Robertson’s legal defense argued that because Capital Records songs were on the open web for promotion, they were fair game for Sideloading.

A vision of cloud storage and online music lockers has compelled Michael Robertson’s entrepreneurial ventures in music. An earlier company, MP3.com, contained a feature similar to Sideload.com called Beam-It. Customers used an online tool to verify their ownership of a CD, and the Beam-It service gave them access to a cloud-stored copy. Legal trouble ensued there, too, resulting in a multi-million-dollar settlement and eventual sale of MP3.com to Vivendi, a major label group.

In a 2005 conversation with RAIN editor Brad Hill, Robertson said, “I accomplished a lot with MP3.com, but not everything I started out to do with the music business. Hopefully I can finish that task list with Oboe.”

Speaking about cloud-accessed music generally, Robertson was clearly ahead of his time in 2005: “As storage continues to come down in price it will be practical to have storage in many different devices including phones, PDAs, home stereos, car stereos, sunglasses, bike helmets – you name it! And of course people will want their music in all those locations. It makes a lot more sense to simply zap the music to all those places rather than carrying around an iPod and using adapters to plug it into every location.”

“That’s the world I want for my kids,” Michael Robertson said in 2005.

Brad Hill

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