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Freedom fighters/criminals (delete as appropriate) Napster may be forced to sue its long-time friend, the band Offspring, after Offspring's Web site started selling Napster merchandise including T-shirts and baseball caps without its permission.

Napster is keeping schtum about possible litigation, but if it doesn't defend its trademark, it's not hard to imagine millions of Net users abusing the high-profile company's logo and name. The beautiful irony in all this of course is that Napster is currently deep in legal wrangles with heavy metal band Metallica and iconic anti-establishment rapper Dr Dre, among others, for allegedly abusing their copyright.

Napster has devised and distributes software for sharing MP3 music files. Of course, this is viciously abused and so Napster has been targeted by the music industry and famous musicians who want to control their music and makes wodges of cash all for themselves.

While everyone was lining up with a stick, however, the "most pirated band on the Internet" Offspring came to the site's defense. In fact, on the band's site is a small section on its positive view on MP3 ("The Offspring view MP3 technology and programs such as Napster as being a vital and necessary means to promote music and foster better relationships with our fans").

But while the music industry is gradually waking up to the idea that it can't control music distribution in the same way or make as much money per unit as it used to, Napster is also having to recognise commercial realities.

How it will argue that misusing a trademark is bad, but free distribution of trained musicians' output is somehow okay, will prove interesting listening. And no matter what it comes up with you can be sure the legions of Napster faithful won't agree.

Fortunately for Napster, we have the answer. Regarding Offspring, write a merchandising agreement and just send it to them. Then pay a designer to come up with a better-looking T-shirt and sell it on your own site. Then, turn a blind eye to abuse of trademark. But do watch what people do with it, then produce a better version and sell it with an "official" stamp on it. No one will mind if you sue someone who misuses an official tag.

Thus you get loads of free publicity, you set up a profitable merchandising empire (and of course only the official goods will be cool) and you avoid accusations of selling out.

As for the Metallica, Dr Dre et al court cases - you're on your own (if you don't count the half a million or so users). ®

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