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US shies from unwanted Net music legislation

Much jaw-jaw at Senate hearing, but Napster vs RIAA war-war continues

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The fight between the music industry establishment and the business' Net-based young guns will be settled in the courts, not the legislature, if the outcome of yesterday's US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into Internet music distribution is anything to go by.

Certainly, the majority of the combatants feel that there's no need for new legislation on the matter, with even opponents in the copyright infringement debate - and you can't get much further apart than Napster's CEO, Hank Berry, and Sony Music president Fred Erlich - coming together to dissuade the Committee from legislative interference.

Indeed, the Committee itself expressed a reluctance to legislate.

That may be the majority view, but it's not the only one. Metallica's Lars Ulrich told the Committee that a clarification of law is exactly what's needed.

Incidentally, while Metallica may be an American band, Ulrich himself is a European, and his stance on the issue neatly demonstrates the difference between Old World 'hands-on government' approach to such issues and the US' more laissez faire attitude.

Ulrich's contention is that legislation is necessary and that it should come soon. "We'd all be dreaming if we think we could work this out between us," he told the Committee. "The issue's too deep."

Indeed it is. Napster, for instance, claims sharing copies of songs for non-commercial reasons is permitted by the law. It's chief opponent, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a trade organisation that represents the major labels and a number of lesser ones, says the law permits no such thing.

Clearly, some elucidation is necessary. The question is, what's the best way to get it - legal precedence set by court rulings, or legislative influence?

It's not surprising that the RIAA and Napster favour the former. If neither can reach an agreement on licensing - and it's increasingly unlikely that such an accord will be reached - then the courts provide a way to crush what the music industry regards as a major threat. New legislation, no matter how quickly it's enacted, isn't going kill Napster - the company will simply work through the new rules.

Napster, too, favours a court settlement, since it provides the only way its approach can be publicly validated, which is largely, we suspect, why it hasn't agreed to an out-of-court settlement, particularly after MP3.com lost its own battle with the RIAA. Napster, for all its claims that it's helping grow music sales, arguably is aiding and abetting small-scale copyright infringement. As the entertainment industry-sponsored Democrat Senator for California, Diane Feinstein, put it yesterday: "Napster has found a methodology which entirely defeats the process of copyright protection."

The only way it can get away with that and be seen to do so is if a Federal judge throws the RIAA's case out of court.

Metallica - and other artists, for that matter - really just want the damn thing sorted out. Technology isn't the issue, it's royalties, and if they get them, they're happy. If legislation gets them their due, without the cost of legal action, so much the better. And the key here is legal clarity. Hence Ulrich's desire to get the Committee into a law-forming frame of mind. ®

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