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US music industry sues MP3.com over ‘virtual CD player’

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The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has launched its latest legal action against a company supporting the controversial MP3 digital music format. Last time, the target was Diamond Multimedia (now part of 3D graphics specialist S3) over its MP3-based Rio portable music player. On Friday, the RIAA launched a copyright infringement suit against music e-commerce site MP3.com. The RIAA lost its case against Diamond. The RIAA's complaint centres on MP3.com's new My.MP3.com site, launched 12 January. My.MP3.com apparently allows users to upload their CDs to MP3.com's servers and then listen to them from any PC via what are effectively downloaded MP3 files. MP3's compression level is such that the format's quality is nowhere near that of a CD, so the trade-off punters have to make is clearly sound fidelity for easy of access to their record collections. In fact, My.MP3.com doesn't actually involve uploading anything. It simply checks to see whether MP3.com has a copy of the same album that the user is trying to 'upload'. If MP3.com's rapidly expanding library of CDs doesn't contain the user's favourite album, the 'upload' process fails. The RIAA maintains that MP3.com's scheme to hold a vast library of CDs and make tracks available to users free of charge is a blatant violation of the US copyright law. It also claims MP3.com has built up a library of over 40,000 CDs illegally. "The foundation on which these services are built is an unauthorized digital archive with the most popular and valuable copyrighted sound recordings in the world -- music that is not owned by MP3.com," said the RIAA. MP3.com's argument is that it doesn't need to own them since the user does. Because each user has to already own a copy of the CD, providing compressed data to that same user from another copy of that CD isn't a copyright infringement since this is something the user could do on their own anyway legally through fair use statutes. MP3.com is pretty riled with the RIAA, having made its technology available to the organisation's inspectors in an attempt to show that My.MP3.com isn't operating contrary to copyright protection legislation, and, on the contrary, works to prevent "piracy, counterfeiting and unauthorised use", according to MP3.com CEO Michael Robertson. The company portrays the RIAA's suit as the protectionist action of a monopolist business, and its hard not to come to a similar conclusion. That said, even if MP3.com's service is legal, since it's primarily a means to market MP3.com's own artists' albums, the company is to a degree open to the charge of profiting commercially from the site. Equally, it's hard to envisage such a system that's can offer rock tight security, and won't be hacked to allow CDs to be copied illegally. For sure, users can copy disks for anyone easily enough as it is, but insecurities in the My.MP3.com system will weaken its defence against the RIAA. ®

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