In the early days of music streaming, perhaps 15 years ago, using services like Napster and Limewire meant constantly holding two thoughts together: This can’t possibly be legal, and They can’t possibly catch me. At the time, the legality of music piracy wasn’t really in question—copyrighted material was being distributed without royalties—but the ability of the courts to do anything about it was.
But that was more than a decade ago, so it is somewhat shocking that as late as earlier this week—in 2015—Grooveshark, which was essentially a Napster in the cloud, still existed. The site didn’t have the proper licenses to host all of the music it offered to users for free, and even had the gall to put up ads, from companies as established as Mercedes-Benz, alongside that unlicensed, copyright-protected material. (Sometimes, though Grooveshark's library was mostly the product of crowdsourcing, it was employees who were the ones uploading the tracks.) On top of all that, the company sold subscriptions, for a premium ad-free service.
Given this business model, it is no surprise that Grooveshark shut down, but it is a surprise that it took until now for that to happen. How did it survive all these years? “Good lawyers, basically,” says Mark Mulligan, the founder of MIDiA Research, a media consultancy. “It took [the labels] time to be able to make the case. Ultimately, they were always going to get there, but the complexity of copyright law almost always means that these cases can take a huge amount of time.”
The first lawsuit against Grooveshark was filed in 2009, and, Mulligan says, the company stalled for legal time by claiming at times that it wasn’t infringing on copyrights, and at others that it was making efforts to remove any illegal music. (A note currently posted on Grooveshark’s website leaves little room for legal or moral gray area: “We failed to secure licenses from rights holders for the vast amount of music on the service. That was wrong. We apologize. Without reservation,” it reads in part.)
Explaining what took so long in this particular instance might have to do with some of the legal details that are currently unknown. Catherine Moore, a professor of music business at NYU, observes that the note on Grooveshark’s website doesn’t specify whom the site’s ownership is being passed off to. “The answer to that would explain why this has taken so long,” she says.
Ever since Napster launched in 1999, the music industry has witnessed the life cycles of sites and services that distribute its product for free. Every time one service is shut down by a court, another swoops in to take its place: Limewire launched the year before Napster was shut down, and Grooveshark got started the same year Limewire’s legal troubles were brewing. "It's essentially like Whack-a-Mole," says Mulligan. "Another service could do exactly what [Grooveshark has] done, and if they play the same game … then that makes it really difficult, often impossible, for an outright, immediate closure."
But Mulligan thinks that free, semi-legal music’s circle of life is finally complete. “Why do you need to have any other free service when you’ve got YouTube?” he asks, noting that the site has a bigger catalogue than other licensed services and is available for free on any smartphone. "There actually isn't much of a business case for trying to launch a new Grooveshark,” he says. If record labels start pressuring YouTube to remove unlicensed material, that could change. “Then you have a bit of a demand vacuum,” he says, “and that may well end up getting filled.”