Will Michael Sit Become Web 2.0’s Kevin Mitnick?

SeeqPod CEO talking about his company’s origins.

If you haven’t heard about the tale of Michael Sit, you will – I’ve already had three people call me up to discuss it with me in the last two hours.

The man is about to become the Kevin Mitnick of Web 2.0.  Even more of a poster-child for the “damn the man” attitude that The Pirate Bay boys exude, his great crime is to have simply used a publicly available API to create a search engine service called FavTap in his free time.

The cost for Mr. Sit, his wife and one year old son? Billions, if record label EMI has it’s way.

Certainly, the outcome of the highly watched TPB criminal proceedings will have a far reaching effect on the culture of the web in the same way that the closure of Napster did, but EMI’s attack on Michael Sit and the creators of Seeqpod could have a very chilling effect on innovation on the Internet if it’s successful.

Michael Robertson most succinctly summarized the issue on his personal blog:

“Nearly a year ago Warner Music sued Seeqpod in California claiming their search engine (which links to millions of songs) was a copyright infringement. Last week, EMI piled on with it’s own copyright lawsuit this time in New York but, besides the venue, this lawsuit was fundamentally different. Instead of just targeting the corporate entity they filed massive monetary claims against individuals, investors and even an unrelated individual.

“These individuals are victims of the new record label strategy to intimidate technology companies by going after not just file sharers but founders, employees and investors. It is a gravely serious matter when a multinational media company tries to take all your possessions with claims of billions of dollars of damages.

“EMI took another step which threatens how the net works and this is where Ryan Sit comes into the picture. Ryan lives in my hometown of San Diego and is a graduate of my alma mater (UCSD). He works at a startup company. Ryan is married, with a one year old child and another baby on the way. In his spare time he builds smalls net projects to keep up with the latest coding techniques. For one of these, he combined Seeqpod, Last.fm, and Pandora to create Favtape. Favtape appears to be a music search engine, but it actually relies 100% on Seeqpod to perform these duties. Favtape doesn’t track what music is played or downloaded – all that happens at Seeqpod.

As music industry veteran Michael Sean Wright pointed out in a phone call with me this afternoon, in addition to curbing innovation and experimentation involving APIs, it also has the disturbing effect of putting Michael Sit’s free speech on ice.

Wright said that he and others have reached out to Michael Sit to get comment from him as well as additional insight on the situation to no avail, since lawyers have advised him to cautiously guard and limit anything he says publicly. Given the stakes in the trial and the current state of bankruptcy law, he’d do well to heed those warnings.

Techcrunch’s Jason Kincaid says that the legality of Seeqpod (and consequently the legality of Favtap) is “shaky,” but I’d beg to differ.  While it is and always was an absolute certainty that the big labels would sue, the validity of that suit (for anyone with a sufficient understanding of technology) would never be in question:

Did Michael Sit upload the unlicensed music?
Did Michael Sit create the search engine to find them?
Did Michael Sit create a music oriented search algorithm to filter the results?
Did Michael Sit create an API so that data could be accessed by others?

The answer to all these questions is no. Michael did nothing to facilitate the flow or download of potentially illegal music files. Michael Sit created, ostensibly as a programming exercise, a GUI that sat on top of the SeeqPod API. The true “blame,” if you want to assign it at all, belongs to pirates, Google / Yahoo, SeeqPod and SeeqPod respectively.

Whether they meant it to be or not, EMI’s naming of Michael is an attack on the ethos of the very underpinnings of the social web and it’s developer community.

Expect this story to become a much bigger deal.