The RIAA forced me to shut down HypedMusic, a successful website/apps I built in high school

Just a disclaimer before I start:

I am not in any way condemning the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) for what they did or claiming that in some way they “wronged” me; they had the right to send me a cease-and-desist and I immediately complied. I’m simply telling my story about how my website/apps with 15 million hits a month got shut down, which others may find interesting.

The story

The website/apps I’m talking about was called HypedMusic, which provided an interface to listen to free, unlimited music, create playlists, and share said playlists with your friends on the website or Android and iPhone apps. When I started building HypedMusic at the start of 2011 as a 15 year old in his sophomore year of high school, I was under the impression that what I was doing was legal, protected under DMCA’s safe harbor policy, which by practice is what makes sites like Youtube legal: although they host millions of illegal content uploaded by users, as long as they agree to take down said videos when requested by copyright owners, they are in the clear because it is difficult/impossible to monitor what gets uploaded to their sites. Google, Soundcloud, and countless other sites rely on the same policy to keep them in the clear.

What I did was simply store links to music files hosted elsewhere on the internet and acted as a conduit for these music files, allowing people to search songs by title/artist and play/create playlists using my interface. How did I get these links to songs? I relied on 3rd party APIs such as Soundcloud and most notably ex.fm, a music startup with $1.5 million funding that did something similar to what I was doing. (Interesting sidenote: ex.fm got their links using their google chrome extension which pruned websites their users visited for media files. I believe that ex.fm was also recently sent a cease-and-desist because they’re shutting down on January 15th. Their official announcement regarding this only vaguely cites the “litigious nature of the music industry” as one of the many reasons for this shutdown, although I think a cease-and-desist from the RIAA is one of the only/the only reason for their shutdown.)

Anyways, back to the original story: since I was using APIs from other companies to provide me with these links, who also claimed to comply with DMCA’s safe harbor policy, I thought I was in the clear: really, I was two degrees of freedom removed from the actual music source hosted on the internet. Someone sending me a cease-and-desist would get the link to the music file removed from the backend, but the music file still existed on the internet and most likely on someone else’s database too (i.e. the website whose API I used to get said music link.)

All of this only became interesting once HypedMusic got really popular: much more popular than I would have ever thought. I released the Android app September-ish of 2012, and the iPhone app January 2013. The iPhone app got noticed by a big iPhone review site: http://www.idownloadblog.com/2013/01/21/hypedmusic-1-0-for-iphone/ which really made HypedMusic take off. It had been growing steadily since, with 100,000+ unique visitors and 15,000,000 page hits the last three months:

hyped1

Just a note: I hit a page on my server anytime someone plays a song on the app, which contributes to the high “hit” count.

The iPhone and Android apps also really took off: I was (at some point) ranked 45th on Top New Free Music Apps in the Android Play Store, 28th on Top Free Music Apps in the U.S. iTunes store, and 1st on Top Free Music Apps on France and other international iTunes stores.

Here’s two screenshots of the app in Android and iOS:

hyped2    hyped3

Which brings me to the RIAA.

The email

On December 16th, I received an email from Apple stating that the RIAA requested I take down my app immediately because they believed I was infringing on their copyright. The RIAA, as I stated before, is the Recording Industry Association of America. I emailed the RIAA stating why I thought I was operating under DMCA’s safe harbor policy, and got this email in return on December 17th:

Dear Luke Li, We received your email on Monday, December 16, 2013. We have a good faith belief that you/your company is infringing our members’ content through the distribution of the following application: HypedMusic. The clear purpose and/or design of this application is to encourage, facilitate, and/or cause its users to stream and/or download popular sound recordings, the vast majority of which are owned or controlled by RIAA Member companies and are not authorized for distribution in this manner, while at the same time providing you/your company with certain financial or related benefits. We believe you/your company has a direct ability to control the infringement through the design of your application, and yet have not taken steps to stop such infringement. Under the U.S. Copyright Act, those who distribute, reproduce, or digitally transmit sound recordings without authorization and those who assist, facilitate, or induce such actions by others are liable for copyright infringement. By indexing, linking to, transmitting, retransmitting, providing access to, and/or otherwise assisting users in streaming and downloading infringing copies of sound recordings emanating from various unauthorized sources on the Internet, these applications are violating U.S. copyright law. Therefore, we demand that you immediately cease making this application available for distribution. If you choose to redesign the application, we demand that you do so in a manner that either filters/blocks distribution or our members’ content via the application or that you obtain appropriate authorization from RIAA Members prior to distribution of any such Member’s content. The foregoing is not a complete recitation of the facts and law pertaining to this matter and does not constitute a waiver of any right, remedy or action, including the right to recover damages for the infringements referenced in this letter. All such rights, remedies and actions are expressly reserved. Sincerely, RIAA Online Anti-Piracy Recording Industry Association of America

I’m 18 years old, and I definitely do not want to get sued. I am not a lawyer, so I’m not sure if this is exactly a cease-and-desist, but I definitely did not want to test the RIAA out on this case. I took down my iOS app immediately, as well as my Android app and website even though they did specifically ask, just to be safe. I found out a week later that ex.fm was getting shut down as well, which makes me think that the RIAA is just making a clean sweep of the app store.

Again, just to reiterate: I did not make HypedMusic with the intention of infringing copyright, I thought I was operating in a legal area after seeing different, large companies do similar things. Once I saw the RIAA’s email, I complied immediately.

Which is not to say I am not disappointed: I spent a lot of time building HypedMusic. I’ve learned a lot of really cool stuff along the way, and I’m optimistic about some new projects that I’m working on right now.

Thanks a lot for reading, and please feel free to ask me any questions about my experience.

27 thoughts on “The RIAA forced me to shut down HypedMusic, a successful website/apps I built in high school

  1. Foo says:

    > Again, just to reiterate: I did not make HypedMusic with the intention of infringing copyright

    Nonsense. Your app’s sole intended purpose and design is facilitation of copyright infringement. And you’re claiming you didn’t realize this? Yeah, right.

    Linking to copyrighted files is a gray area of the law, but in your case (sole purpose) has not been looked upon favorably by the courts.

    Look, you can build whatever unethical gunk you want, I don’t care. But at least have the balls to own up to what you’re doing.

  2. joe says:

    You embarrassed them. Did nothing wrong.

    Also notice that they don’t even say that it will be the end of it IF , IF , IF they can get you to admit wrongdoing.

    and does not constitute a waiver of any right, remedy or action, including the right to recover damages for the infringements referenced in this letter

    Be careful and admit nothing. You done nothing wrong. They are the dinosaurs who cant monetize worthless copies via providing a service people want.

    Good luck

  3. Ryan says:

    I’m no attorney but I would have to tried to find one before taking down my app. The music industry to this day is still so lost.

  4. dmu says:

    Do not worry about this. The RIAA sends millions of these emails/letters out a year. You are not breaking a law, they will not sue you.

  5. You did not infringe on copyright holder’s rights. You were essential a search engine. You are not compelled to take down your app, in any legal regard that is. Basically, the RIAA sends out scary messages like this and hopes people will comply. They cannot sue you for this, and they wouldn’t spend their money trying to because you have nothing for them to win… you are 18 and probably don’t own a home, etc. So, the risk is/was minimal and I believe this was really just “more bark than bite”. IMHO, you should re-post your app. There’s nothing wrong with what you were doing, if it was, then Google, Yahoo, Yandex, Bing, etc. would all be in huge legal battles with the RIAA simply by linking to content.

    • If anything, reach out to the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and see what their lawyer’s opinion is on this. The EFF is there to help protect people like you from being steeped on and taken advantage by the big scary companies like the RIAA, MPAA, etc. On some other occasions, their lawyers have written letters back to the RIAA/MPAA on behalf of the “infringer” and sometimes help represent them.

    • Anthony says:

      You are wrong in thinking that this is not copyright infringement.

      Search engines are protected by DMCA Safe Harbors because they cannot control the content that ends up in their searches. However, this app knowingly facilitates music content that affects the original music copyright owner’s right to distribute the content.

      Source: I just finished taking an intellectual property law class.

      I’m not a proponent of our current copyright laws (they are really messed up), but this is how it would be interpreted in most courts and Luke should NOT try to fight this.

  6. I’m not sure why you thought this would possibly be legal – the entire idea of your website/app is to give people access to non-free music that they don’t own. I support sharing and would happily seed most torrents, but this is most definitely illegal.

  7. Anthony says:

    Awesome that it was a success until you had to take it down!

    Copyright law is a bit of a mess, but your app does indeed infringe on copyrighted music. Your product is some sense similar to Napster’s music file sharing service. Napster was found to infringe on music record copyrights primarily because it kept a central index of all the music files being shared. Napster never actually stored any of the music, but they directly facilitated the illegal copying of it.

    Similarly, although your product merely references sound files that are found across the web, it is the central index for all the content and you can be responsible for contributory copyright infringement.

    For a more in depth read, check out A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc. 239 F.3d 1004 (2001).

    Hope that clarifies things!

  8. Nick says:

    > “I am not in any way condemning the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) for what they did or claiming that in some way they ‘wronged’ me”

    You might not, but I for one would.

    Also, you may have noticed Hacker News is a bit of an echo chamber for largely unsympathetic (because bashing the competition is good for the ego) pro-copyright (because the media is big business) entrepreneurs (instead of being necessarily what I would call hackers). The title of the site is actually a bit of a useful misnomer that is effective in creating a cult from which to draw semi-technologically-literate (or at least technologically-enthusiastic) talent, not unlike Google’s “don’t be evil” slogan – as if a company had any kind of morality with which to evaluate such a goal.

    I would like to encourage you to stop apologizing for your contributions and defending your attackers. Critics are everywhere (again, because of self-interest), but not all criticism is valid. Just because you made something that the RIAA find threatening, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist and I for one think you made something useful and I’m willing to say it’s a shame that you were bullied into self-censorship for the RIAA to continue to do a dishonest business.

  9. Roddy says:

    Sorry to hear this, we have a similar app in the App Store and your news came as a bummer. One thing you can do is to make your code open source, there will be 100′s of app clones then in App Store :-)

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