Napster, universities sued by Metallica

The heavy-metal band sues the MP3-trading software company and a trio of universities, charging that together they are responsible for massive violations of the band's copyrights.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
Heavy-metal band Metallica sued the Napster MP3-trading software company and a trio of universities today, charging that together they were responsible for massive violations of the band's copyrights.

It is the second time the young company has been brought into court facing charges that its popular music-swapping software is being used illegally. But it's the first time that universities, which have been struggling to manage their own students' use of the service, have been brought into the legal firefight.

"Napster has built a business based on large-scale piracy," the band's lawsuit reads. "Facilitating that are hypocritical universities and colleges who could easily block this insidious and ongoing thievery scheme."

Today's suit amplifies the legal questions

swirling around Napster and its various clones, which in just a few months have created broad new channels for music piracy online.

Yesterday, a German judge ruled that America Online and other Internet service providers were liable for pirated music traversing their systems in that country, but to date no U.S. Internet company has borne the same responsibility.

Napster's software allows music listeners to open pieces of their personal hard drives to everyone using Napster, sharing whatever MP3 songs they have already downloaded or stored. At any time, thousands of people are online, sharing hundreds of thousands of songs, many of which are technically illegal to download without the permission of the copyright holders.

The Recording Industry Association of America has already sued Napster, contending that the firm allows massive copyright violations by facilitating the easy exchange of music.

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That case was scheduled to reach a possible early conclusion this week, but the federal judge handling the case postponed her decision.

Napster has noted that it's not hosting any of the music and says it is protected by federal copyright provisions that shield Internet service providers from being liable for illegal material sent over their services. The company also has acted to block some individuals from trading large amounts of copyrighted material using the Napster software, its attorneys say.

Napster's attorneys had no initial comment on today's suit, other than to say that Metallica had moved to court without first trying to settle the issue.

"No one contacted Napster for any discussion before they issued the press release or filed the lawsuit," said Lawrence Pulgrum, a Fenwick & West attorney representing Napster.

Metallica's case throws a new twist into the legal wrangling by alleging the complicity of Yale University, the University of Southern California (USC) and Indiana University in music piracy.

"The universities have elected not to block access to Napster, commenting that their only problem is a potential drain on their limited bandwidth availability," the lawsuit reads, "no doubt caused by the massive ongoing thefts of musicians' intellectual property."

Officials at USC said they had not yet been served with the lawsuit, so they could not comment on its particulars. However, an attorney said that the university acts as an Internet service provider and therefore does not censor the students' use of the Internet.

Napster users, some of whom are feeling increasingly beleaguered by the legal suits targeting their activities, defended their use of the service as a way of helping the bands spread their music to new listeners.

"Some artists are in it for the pure art of music. Others are in it for the money," said Wayne Chang, a Haverhill, Mass., student who manages Napster's online community bulletin boards. "Metallica just showed which side of the line they're on."

Metallica's attorneys said they believed damages could amount to more than $10 million, based on $100,000 for each pirated song. The case was filed in a federal court in California.