Napster may block hundreds of thousands of fans

Metallica dumps a truckload of legal documents on the software company's doorstep, identifying more than 335,000 people it says may have been illegally pirating its songs.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
SAN MATEO, Calif.--With showmanship worthy of a stadium concert, hard-rock band Metallica dumped a truckload of legal documents on software company Napster's doorstep today, identifying more than 335,000 screen names for people the band says may have been illegally pirating its songs.

The band's attorneys say they fingered the individuals sharing Metallica songs online while doing a scan of the software service last weekend, and they want those people stopped. The band isn't threatening to sue the software users, but today it demanded that Napster block them from its MP3-swapping service.

It's the first time that alleged copyright pirates on Napster or a similar service have been identified in bulk. The move puts the small software company in the uncomfortable position of choosing between defending its members and defending its own legal right to exist.

The company said it would block people from its service only if Metallica's documents--submitted in paper rather than computerized form--had all their legal i's dotted.

"Napster will review the over 300,000 fan names that Metallica turned in as soon as possible," Fenwick & West attorney Lawrence Pulgrum, who is representing the company, said in a statement. "If the claims are submitted properly, the company will take the appropriate actions to disable the users Metallica has identified."

Today's event dipped heavily into the surreal, providing plenty of rock-and-roll spectacle for the assembled TV cameras. Napster and Metallica fans brandished T-shirts and stickers and shouted at one another as the documents were delivered. As drummer Lars Ulrich gave his statement defending the band's position, a self-declared "ex-fan" shouted protests in the background and broke CDs with his bare hands.

Lars Ulrich
Metallica drummer
Metallica says it has no plans to sue Napster users.
But notwithstanding the circus atmosphere, the identification of individuals does mark new ground in the record industry's attempt to keep its wares from being freely distributed online. It also could help test the boundaries of online copyright law.

Napster is being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America, as well as by Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre, for contributing to vast amounts of music piracy allegedly taking place with the aid of its software.

"The ideal situation is clear and simple--to put Napster out of business," Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said in a chat with the public on Yahoo last night.

The Napster software allows hundreds of thousands of people to link their computer hard drives and easily swap copies of high-quality MP3 files, legal or not.

The software company has claimed in court that it simply provides a directory of songs located on its subscribers' computers and doesn't host any content itself. It says it's entitled to the same protections against legal liability that Internet service providers have.

But that's where Metallica's 60,000 pages of legal documents come in.

Under current law, copyright holders such as Metallica can demand that an ISP remove pirated content from its service, or even demand that links to such illegal content be removed.

If an ISP wants to avoid legal liability, it has to remove the content or

Lars Ulrich
Metallica drummer
Metallica's message for Napster users.
the links and notify its customer why that action is being taken. In the context of Napster, this would mean blocking a member's username or Internet Protocol address--the numbers that identify a computer on the Internet--from accessing the service.

Lawyers say that copyright law does allow a response, however. Blocked members have three days to tell the ISP, under threat of perjury, that the content wasn't illegal, or that they were misidentified. If the ISP gets this notification, it has to forward it to the copyright holder. If the copyright holder (in this case Metallica) doesn't file an actual lawsuit against the user of the service, then the content can be put back in 10 days.

Courts are still trying to determine whether Napster fits under this copyright law. A preliminary decision is expected from a federal judge any day.

The company has said it intends to comply with copyright law, however. A message on its Web site warns its members about copyright violations and says that the company "reserves the right to terminate the account of a user upon any single infringement of the rights of others in conjunction with use of the Napster service."

"They're really getting whipsawed by the various plaintiffs," said Bill Coats, a copyright attorney with Howrey Simon Arnold & White. "This puts Napster in a challenging position."

Even if the service does decide to block some of its members, it has a difficult road ahead.

Metallica's attorneys provided only information about individuals' usernames, the names of the Metallica songs being shared, dates and times the songs were available, and the Internet addresses of Napster's servers.

Lars Ulrich
Metallica drummer
Has Lars ever used Napster?
That could allow Napster to block individual usernames. But these usernames can easily be changed by Napster subscribers.

Network administrators say it's possible to determine the IP addresses of individual Napster users, which would be a more effective tool in blocking access to the service. A Napster spokesman said that Metallica did not include this information, however.

Metallica's attorneys said that they did include people's IP addresses, but this could not be independently verified by News.com.

Napster executives are hoping for a way to settle with the band instead of blocking its members, they said today.

"I'm a huge Metallica fan and therefore really sorry that they're going in this direction," Shawn Fanning, the 19-year-old founder of the company, said in a statement. "If we got the opportunity to explain to the band why Napster exists and why fans enjoy Napster, perhaps we could bring all of this to a peaceful conclusion."