Federal Judge Dismisses Major Labels' Lawsuit Against Russian Stream-Ripper

Alexander Kirch / EyeEm
The Statue of JusticeĀ 

A federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia has dismissed a copyright infringement case brought by Universal Music, Sony Music and 10 other record labels against the operator of FLVTO.biz, a notorious Russian stream-ripping website. In writing his opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction, saying that the defendant, Tofig Kurbanov, did not set out to target U.S. citizens by operating the site.

"As the websites are semi-interactive, the interactions with the users are non-commercial, and there were no other acts by the Defendant that would demonstrate purposeful targeting, the Court finds that the Defendant did not purposefully avail himself of the benefits and protections of either Virginia or the United States," Judge Hilton said.

FLVTO.biz received over 263 million visits between Oct. 2017 and Sept. 2018, making it the 322nd most-visited website globally during that period, according to court documents. Nearly 10 percent -- 26.3 million visitors -- of the site's traffic came from the United States, including 500,000 from Virginia.

Stream-ripping websites allow users to rip audio from videos on YouTube and other sources. With some quick copy and pasting of URLs, a YouTube video is turned into a permanent MP3 format. In its most recent report measuring consumer habits, the IFPI pointed to stream-ripping as the most popular method for accessing copyright-infringing music.

Plaintiffs in this case included UMG, Capitol, Warner Bros., Atlantic, Elektra, Fueled by Ramen, Nonesuch, Sony Music, Sony Music Latin, Arista, LaFace and Zomba. The record labels believed the court had jurisdiction in the case because many of the site's U.S. visitors originated in the Commonwealth of Virginia, arguing that FLVTO's geo-targeted ads meant it was purposefully targeting Virginians and others in the U.S.

Kurbanov also operates 2conv.com, a smaller stream-ripping site similar to FLVTO. The two sites, with domains registered through Arizona-based GoDaddy, are free to use but earn revenue through advertising, much of it geo-targeted based on a user's location. The court found that the defendant does not have a commercial relationship with users because its revenue is derived from third party advertisers.

The labels also argued that the websites were "highly interactive" due to the sheer volume of users. Judge Hilton disagreed, writing in his opinion that there needed to be "numerous transactions" between the site and users for that to be the case. "Users do not need to create an account, sign in, or register in order to the sites," he said. "This want of an ongoing, developed relationship between users and the websites leads to a finding the they are semi-interactive."

Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against Kurbanov on Aug. 3, 2018, arguing the sites are a vehicle for music piracy and copyright infringement -- an assertion the court does not deny. The defendant moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, or have the case transferred to the Central District of California. In his order, Judge Hilton declined to address Kurbanov's request to move to California "as that venue would also be without jurisdiction."

A spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which filed the lawsuit on behalf of its member labels, said the organization would review its options on how to respond to the ruling.

The FLVTO suit followed a similar 2016 filing against the world’s largest stream-ripping site, YouTube-mp3.org for copyright violations. In that case, the site complied and agreed to shut down.