The recording industry has racked up another significant legal victory over an Internet-based piracy facilitator.

In a bluntly worded 38-page opinion, a Manhattan federal judge ruled Tuesday that a service called Usenet.com violated copyright law by helping users -- who paid up to $19 per month for access – to download songs illegally, without payment to labels or publishers.

Judge Harold Baer said Usenet.com engaged in direct, contributory, and vicarious copyright infringement, and induced others to infringe. He also found that the defendants, Usenet.com, Inc., Sierra Corporate Design, Inc., and the companies' director and sole shareholder Gerald Reynolds, engaged in a wide array of litigation misconduct, including "wiping" seven hard drives clean of evidence and sending witnesses off on company-paid European vacations to avoid having to testify in the case. As a sanction for what the court found to be "strong evidence of extreme wrongdoing," it refused to allow the defendants to argue that they were entitled to a "safe harbor" from infringement claims under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The RIAA, just off its members' $1.92 million verdict against Minnesota peer-to-peer user Jammie Thomas-Rasset (Billboard, June 27), hailed the labels' victory against this commercial infringer. "We're pleased that the court recognized not just that Usenet.com directly infringed the record companies' copyrights but also took action against the defendants for their egregious litigation misconduct," RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth said in a statement.

The Usenet.com opinion will likely be cited as an important precedent in the fight against services that facilitate piracy. Among the court's most important determinations was that copyright defendants can't claim protection under the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1984 Sony-Betamax decision if they maintain an "ongoing relationship" with their infringing users. Usenet.com had argued unsuccessfully that it couldn't be held liable for its users' direct infringement because its service was, in the words of Sony-Betamax, "capable of substantial noninfringing uses."

Usenet, a once-obscure corner of the Internet that pre-dates the World Wide Web, is perhaps best known for hosting discussion groups on topics ranging from cars to gardening to computer programming. But in recent years, Usenet has become a major source of pirated songs and movies. Services such as Usenet.com charge users a monthly fee to provide entree to the larger Usenet itself, by providing access to files called "binaries" stored on their own servers.

While far fewer pirates download songs from Usenet services than from peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent, copyright owners are particularly concerned about Usenet pirates because they are people with a demonstrated willingness to pay for online content. In other words, a download via Usenet is more likely to represent a lost sale than a download via BitTorrent, which pirates can access for free.

Users are willing to pay for access to Usenet even though they can obtain free music through P2P networks because Usenet downloads are usually faster and more reliable. Usenet is also thought to provide users better protection against the prying eyes of label and studio copyright cops.

Usenet.com is but one portal into Usenet. Anti-piracy experts estimate that there are several dozen similar services spread around the globe, and that their use is on the upswing.

The major labels were represented by Jenner & Block, the go-to industry firm that has recently lost a handful of its prominent anti-piracy litigators to top spots at the Obama Justice Department. Among the defendants' attorneys was Ray Beckerman, the RIAA scourge who runs a blog called Recording Industry vs. The People.

Ben Sheffner is a copyright attorney who blogs at
copyrightsandcampaigns.blogspot.com.