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USC puts Napster on short leash

In rapid succession, a high-profile lawsuit has persuaded three major universities to block or restrict students' access to the controversial Napster music-swapping software.

It was as easy as one-two-three: In rapid succession, a high-profile lawsuit has persuaded three major universities to block or restrict students' access to the controversial Napster music-swapping software.

The University of Southern California (USC) was the latest to fall, telling its students Friday that they could use the popular software only for "demonstrably legal" purposes, on designated computers, and under university supervision.

The move follows earlier announcements by Yale University and Indiana University that the schools would block the software on their networks outright. Heavy metal band Metallica sued all three schools, along with Napster itself, alleging that the organizations were aiding widespread copyright violations.

In response, Metallica said today that it would drop all three universities from its lawsuit--the first attempt to hold schools legally responsible for students' online music piracy.

"We are optimistic that all responsible universities upon recognizing the devastating effect that Napster has had on intellectual property rights will join with Yale University, Indiana University and USC in immediately banning access to Napster for illegal purposes," the band said in a statement today.

Napster has thrown the music industry into a panic with software allowing computer users to link their systems together to download music directly from each others' machines. At any time, thousands of people are online, making hundreds of thousands of songs--many of them technically illegal to copy--available for a simple point-and-click download.

The music industry says this threatens artists' livelihoods and record companies' profits. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was the first body to file a lawsuit against Napster, asking courts late last year to shut down the company. A judge is expected to make an early decision in that case any day.

Although none of the three schools sued by Metallica has admitted that it might have lost a lawsuit, all have chosen the path of caution.

In a press release explaining its position Friday, USC said that it could not be held legally liable for its students' online activities and defended Napster as having many legal uses. Nevertheless, it said it would sharply restrict students' use of the software until the "legality of Napster use can be clarified."

With the universities out of the legal picture, the pressure is building on Napster itself. Students at USC said they were disappointed in their school's decision.

"We were hoping the university would go through the whole legal process and help set a precedent," said Jon Barsook, a USC freshman. "If (Metallica) drops the suit against USC, they'll likely go after other schools, and it will be a never-ending process."

see related story: Napster tests new copyright law USC blocked access to Napster in dormitories over the weekend, Barsook said. But students were already finding new ways to the music they wanted, using similar programs such as Gnutella and CuteMX, he said.

Metallica's attorney, Los Angeles lawyer Howard King, said more lawsuits are on the way. He's drafting a lawsuit on behalf of rap artist Dr. Dre that is likely to be filed tomorrow, he said in an email interview today.

Napster has not responded directly to the universities' actions. The company has consistently maintained that it will not block individual artists' work from being traded through its system, but it also has said that it will eject any people specifically identified by the industry as being copyright violators.