RIAA asks judge to pull all major-label songs off Napster

The Recording Industry Association of America fires its latest legal salvo against music-swapping firm Napster, asking a judge to block all major-label content from being traded through the service.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
The Recording Industry Association of America fired its latest legal salvo against music-swapping firm Napster late today, asking a judge to block all major-label content from being traded through the service.

The trade association and a string of record labels are suing Napster, alleging it is contributing to massive copyright infringement as a result of its members trading songs through the service.

The labels--including Warner Music Group, BMG Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Sony Music--have already won one partial victory in the suit, when federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel rejected Napster's first attempt to have the case dismissed. But now the industry wants more: It is asking the judge for a preliminary injunction against the company, aiming to stop a huge volume of recorded material from being swapped through Napster while the suit goes to trial.

For the first time, the industry is providing hard statistics on how much material on Napster it believes is breaking copyright law. It's also bolstering its case with declarations of support from a long list of academics and industry figures, including MP3.com chief executive Michael Robertson and EMusic.com chairman Robert Kohn.

"This is not just about online vs. offline," said Hilary Rosen, CEO of the RIAA. "Most in the online business community recognize that what Napster is doing threatens legitimate e-commerce models and is legally and morally wrong."

The small software company has thrown the recording industry into a panic in recent months, as millions of people have signed on to its service to trade their digital music collections. At any given time, thousands of individuals are using the service, making hundreds of thousands of songs available for a point-and-click download.

The company, however, Napster wildfire has said that it doesn't have the power--legal or technological--to block individual songs from being traded. It asserts that individual members are storing the copyrighted material on their own computers and that none of the copyrighted material flows through its servers.

Eager to get at the people who are pirating their songs, a few artists have tried creative means of closing the tap. Hard-rock band Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre have trolled the service for people making their songs available online and have submitted hundreds of thousands of these subscribers' usernames to Napster. The software company subsequently blocked these members from the service, prompting some backlash against both the bands and Napster itself.

Today's action raises the fight--and the number of high-profile participants--to a new level, however.

Music sales hit?
As part of its filing, the RIAA said it had hired the California-based Field Institute polling firm to talk to students and determine what, if any, effect Napster had on music sales. According to that study, "essentially every single Napster user sampled was engaged in some copyright infringement," the industry said in a statement. The study also claimed that 87 percent or more of the songs copied and downloaded on Napster were copyrighted.

CNET TV: Napster controversy
CNET TV: Napster controversy

Watch video
Nearly half of Napster users "described the nature of its impact on their music purchases in a way which either explicitly indicated or suggested that Napster displaces CD sales," the Field study said.

Along with Robertson--whose MP3.com site is in the midst of settling its own legal fight with the RIAA--Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti weighed in with his own declaration.

"If the courts allow Napster and services like it to continue to facilitate massive copyright infringement, there is a grave risk that the public will begin to perceive and believe that they have a right to obtain copyrighted materials for free," Valenti said.

Napster will fight the preliminary injunction motion in court, even though it is attempting to reach a more amicable settlement, its executives said.

"The record companies are trying to shut down Napster--an entirely legal system of file sharing that reflects the heart and soul of the Internet," interim CEO Hank Barry said in a statement. "We'd like to work with them on a solution, but we'll win this case in court."

Danger zone
The record industry's drive puts Napster in a dangerous situation.

The company questioned the RIAA's statistics, saying it would have figures that supported its own side of the case in a legal response due early in July. Nevertheless, Barry said work did need to be done to help bolster awareness of the importance of copyrights.

"I think there is absolutely a need for the RIAA and Napster and everyone else involved to help raise the standard of awareness that having intellectual property is a good thing," Barry said.

A ruling in the RIAA's favor would affect far more than the hundreds of thousands of Napster users blocked as a result of Metallica's and Dr. Dre's actions. If successfully implemented, it would remove one of the key reasons that many Napster aficionados had used the service, even if illegally: to win access to a library of free songs far larger than any other comparable service.

The move could also be technically difficult to implement. The labels could follow Metallica's lead and collect information on individuals who were making their artists' songs available through the service. But with thousands of different artists, and potentially millions of Napster users, this could turn into a logistical nightmare.

The two sides of the case will meet in court to hash out their arguments over the preliminary injunction. Any ruling by Patel could be appealed by either side.

The injunction, if granted, would last only until the case came to a full trial.