Music piracy battle erupts in Russia as major labels sue large social network

Sony, Universal Music and Warner are going after vKontakte, alleging wholesale copyright infringement

Russia's vKontakte social network is stridently out of tune with copyright laws, according to three major record labels that are suing the company alleging it deliberately facilitates large-scale music piracy.

Sony Music Russia, Universal Music Russia and Warner Music UK reached out several times to vKontakte in recent months but the alleged infringement continued, so they filed three separate lawsuits in the Saint Petersburg and Leningradsky Region Arbitration Court alleging violation of Russian copyright laws, according to IFPI, an organization that represents about 1,300 record companies worldwide and that is coordinating the legal challenge.

VKontakte describes itself on its website as the largest Russian social network with over a 100 million active users.

The site lets users upload and store music and video files and those songs and clips then become available for all users to add them to their own music libraries if they want, according to IFPI. The files can be found and shared by all users regardless of the privacy settings of the uploader, it added.

As a result, vKontakte contains a huge library of copyright-infringing tracks that are stored on its website and available to its millions of users, IFPI said.

The record labels want vKontakte to remove infringing works from its website and are asking the court to require that the website implement measures such as audio-fingerprinting to prevent unauthorized uploads of the labels' songs, IFPI said. The labels are also seeking just over 50 million rubles (US$1.4 million) in damages, it added.

The site lets copyright holders request the blocking or removal of infringing content, but it also can require that they obtain a court order before it complies with their request, making this process "heavily weighted towards the individual who uploaded the infringing material," IFPI said.

VKontakte also requires that copyright holders issue individual requests for each instance of infringement, making the process very time consuming, it added.

VKontakte did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

On its site, vKontakte states that it's not responsible for monitoring and determining the legality of content uploaded by its users.

"The Site Administration has no right to undertake the roles of law enforcement or judicial authorities and objectively cannot evaluate if particular Content on the Site is legal or illegal. If a dispute arises, the applicant is advised to seek help from law enforcement authorities and the court of law," the page states, advising copyright holders to contact individuals first before filing a complaint with the site's administration.

VKontakte has been found liable for copyright infringement before. In May 2012, the Saint Petersburg appeals court upheld an earlier ruling by the Commercial Court of Saint Petersburg that found vKontakte liable for copyright infringement due to unlicensed sharing of music from the Gala Records Music Group, which was acquired by Warner Music in 2013, according to IFPI. Later that year, the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Commercial Court refused to hear vKontakte's appeal to those rulings, it added.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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