Depending on whom you ask, Internet Archives’ Great 78 Project” is either an attempt to digitize and preserve old vinyl records from the early to mid-20th century’s iconic artists or it is “blatant copyright infringement” and the “wholesale theft of generations of music.” It looks like the courts will have the final say.

In a complaint filed August 11th in Manhattan federal court, Universal Music, Sony Music , and Concord are suing the Internet Archive, its founder, Brewster Kahle, and George Blood, an audio engineer who worked on the Great 78 Project, for copyright infringement of songs that the project digitized and stored on the site. The plaintiffs are asking for statutory damages that could amount to $412 million.

At the heart of this complaint are pre-1972 songs, which were previously not covered by federal sound recording copyrights until Congress passed the Music Modernization Act of 2018 that extended the copyright protection for these recordings.

Calling it a “massive, unauthorized, digital record store of recordings,” attorneys for the plaintiffs claim that hundreds of thousands of songs have been copied illegally, however, the suit specifically is about 2,749 iconic songs – maybe most notably Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” but also well-known recordings by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and others.

The plaintiffs claim Internet Archive did not need to preserve these iconic recordings because they are widely available on streaming sites that have obtained rights to the songs legally.

In a statement, Kahle said that they are reviewing the lawsuit with legal counsel but defended the project by saying it had “preserved hundreds of thousands of recordings that are stored on shellac resin, an obsolete and brittle medium.” Kahle went on to say that he saw no reason why sites like Spotify, that sell recordings to consumers, and the library of music on Internet Archive should not be able to co-exist.

Understandably, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that when Internet Archives “exploits Plaintiffs’ sound recordings without authorization, neither Plaintiffs nor their artists see a dime. Not only does this harm Plaintiffs and the artists or their heirs by depriving them of compensation, but it undermines the value of the music.”

Internet Archives is no stranger to copyright litigation. The non-profit recently lost a case filed against it by book publishers regarding its “National Emergency Library” where it published “vast troves” of digital books during the COVID pandemic without owning the rights to the same.

Plaintiffs argue in the present case that this history of opposing copyright laws under “the ill-fitting mantle of fair use” demonstrates that Internet Archives “willfully disobeys the copyright laws of which it is acutely aware.” They have demanded a jury trial.