Napster Still Under Siege

The Napster saga continues. As reported last week, software maker Napster and several colleges were looking at a likely court battle, instigated by music group Metallica and others attempting to prevent their songs from being distributed via MP3 audio files without official consent or payment of royalties. After Metallica announced its suit, rapper Dr. Dre also jumped in, giving Napster until last Friday to remove links to his work.

Two schools named in the original suit, Yale and Indiana Universities, have decided to now ban the Napster software utility's use by students on campus Internet systems. First to fold was Yale, who, while admitting no culpability in the matter, said that "Last Friday, we began to block Napster around the clock in response to the lawsuit and until we can clarify the legal issues surrounding Napster." Metallica dropped its suit against Yale shortly after the statement was released.

Next came Indiana, whose Christopher Simpson also does not feel that the school is actually liable in this case, but adds, "we now believe, however, that our faculty, staff, and students could incur legal exposure if they use this technology. Until those unresolved legal issues are clarified, it seems prudent to block the site." In its own statement, Metallica said that "the band appreciates that Indiana University and Yale are supporting the protection of copyrighted material and intellectual property.

However, the University of Southern California, also named in the suit, says it will not join other schools in blocking students' access to the Napster Internet site. The university's announcement was made late last week, after the other schools had already backed down. In its statement, USC claims it will permit its students access to Napster "only for demonstrably legal purposes from designated university personal computers and under university supervision." One of USC's attorneys, Carol Mauch, states that "the Napster site contains some applications which are clearly legal, such as the chat rooms focused on various styles of music."

Howard King, a lawyer working with Metallica who claims that he is now in talks with USC, says, "We thought it was ironic these schools were encouraging people to pursue careers in creative arts and then participate in the type of wholesale copyright infringement that would deprive them of an income in the creative arts." King adds that "there are going to be more lawsuits filed in the next few weeks by prominent artists."

For its part, Napster says it is going to stay put for now. In a response to the Dr. Dre request, the company suggested that each artist should instead identify the individual users of the system who are violating the rapper's copyrights, adding that "Napster will block access to people who are identified by copyright holders as violators." For his part, King suggests that the Napster response is "comical."

According to Napster's website, "The MP3 files that you locate using Napster are not stored on Napster's servers. Napster does not, and cannot, control what content is available to you using the Napster browser." So the issue will likely be: Can a copyright holder force the participants in the network, not the actual copyright violator, to prevent unauthorized distribution of files?