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Music biz sues Napster

MP3 sharing software encourages piracy, industry body alleges

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The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has gone ahead and filed its long-awaited contributory copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster. Napster produces software (also called Napster) that essentially combines an MP3 music player with Web search, FTP and chat facilities. The company bills the product as a new, communal way to find, share and enjoy online music. The RIAA sees it differently. According to RIAA general counsel and senior executive VP Cary Sherman, Napster is all about "facilitating piracy". "After a random sampling of thousands of recordings available on Napster revealed that the overwhelming majority of recordings Napster was making available were pirated, we contacted the company a number of times, including in writing. But the same recordings we advised Napster were infringing then are still available today," he said. Napster's counter claim is that since it doesn't host any MP3 files, it's not responsible for what people do with its software. "The MP3 files that you locate using Napster are not stored on Napster's servers," says the Napster Web site. "We do not, and cannot, control what content is available to you using the Napster browser. Napster users decide what content to make available to others using the Napster browser. Therefore, it is the users' sole responsibility to comply with all applicable federal and state laws applicable to such content, including copyright laws." It's a tricky case. It's broadly comparable to, say, Microsoft being sued because its Outlook Express software contains a Usenet newsreader that can be used to visit newsgroups containing pirate software, or Apple because the MacOS contains Web searching software (Sherlock) and QuickTime MP3 playback tools. Unlike the Microsoft and Apple examples, Napster is targetting a very specific kind of download, many of which, like it or not, are illegal copies. Napster itself makes no attempt to filter out illegal material. Still, its questionable whether Napster can be declared guilty of contributory copyright infringement on the basis of what other people do with its software. If it can, then the manufacturer of every tape deck, floppy drive, CR-R unit is equally culpable. Of course, the RIAA isn't going to sue Microsoft, Apple or any hardware vendor, but it can at least try and scare the bejaysus out of much smaller operations which can't afford to fight the RIAA's claims, and this seems to be its approach here, no matter how valid are the RIAA's concerns. According to CNet, the RIAA wants $100,000 for each song pirated through Napster. According to MP3.com, Napster has around 1244 users swapping some 200,000 songs. Even if only a fraction of those can be shown to be illegal, that's still a huge amount of money for a five-month-old start up to find. ®

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