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MP3.com's destiny may be decided this month

A federal judge in New York hears arguments in a case that could mean the difference between life and death for the music Web site.

A federal judge in New York heard arguments today in a case that could mean the difference between life and death for Web company MP3.com.

The online music company is being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which says that MP3.com's new music database service violates industry copyrights.

The company's My.MP3.com service has created a huge database of copyrighted songs, which individual subscribers can access online from any computer if they already own the CDs. The company says this is a fair use of the songs, equivalent to the customers taping their own CDs and listening to the songs on any other player.

But the RIAA says the practice is illegal, as MP3.com is the one doing the copying and distributing of the music. The organization is asking for up to $150,000 in damages per album, which could total close to $10 billion.

Today's hearing focused on arguments by the RIAA that the judge should rule early in its favor, without going through a full trial. After more than two hours of testimony, the federal judge said he would make a decision in the case April 28.

"This is one of those things you can't predict," said Michael Rhodes, a Cooley Godward attorney representing MP3.com. "It's like reading tea leaves."

A spokesman for the RIAA declined to comment on the hearing.

The suit is just one of several facing MP3.com and other online music distribution companies. Yesterday, a group of artists sued the company and record labels, saying that neither had the right to distribute their songs online.

Also yesterday, the music group Metallica filed a lawsuit against MP3-swapping software company Napster and a trio of universities, saying each had worked to facilitate piracy of the group's songs online.