Napster Reinstates Some Users, Attacks Offspring, Angers Madonna

The Napster saga continues: Last week the Silicon Valley–based firm, which has been very successful with its MP3 file-sharing software, reinstated approximately 30,000 music fans who had signed online affidavits attesting that they had been mistakenly accused of appropriating songs by rock group Metallica. Those reinstated were slightly less than 10% of the 317,000 Napster users who had been booted from the system on May 3 as a result of legal attacks by Metallica.

"We knew they'd be reinstated . . . we think the whole thing's ludicrous. What Napster has done is turned 30,000 probably innocent people into perjurers, because they are lying," said Metallica's attorney Howard King in a curious statement. "This whole notification and counter-notification is all a huge indication of why Napster can't legitimately claim that they have some sort of copyright-infringement policy that works." The lawsuit was the result of Napster refusing to honor a request from Metallica to make two songs unavailable to users: "And Justice for All" and "Nothing Else Matters." King also represents rapper Dr. Dre, who is pursuing his own copyright-infringement suit against Napster.

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who claims that his group simply wants to have control over its music, had acquired users' names under provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and requested that they be thrown off the system. Napster complied, but many people simple signed back on with new IDs. "The burden of proof lies on the person making the claim that the copyright was infringed. In this case, Metallica decided not to take any action against these users. Once the period ended and no action was taken, Napster reinstated the accounts," said Napster executive Dan Wool.

Napster does not require legal identification from its users, who make recordings archived on their computers available to others on the system. The file-sharing technology has created a huge library of MP3 recordings that any user can tap into—a phenomenon seen as an enormous threat by the music-industry establishment. The Recording Industry Association of America is a litigant against, a San Diego–based Internet music operation that allows users to upload recordings and then listen to them from any computer. Former Beatle Paul McCartney's MPL Communications is also on the attack against the sharing of music online.

Pop star Madonna's label, Warner Bros. Records, is the latest to weigh in against Napster, after a copy of the title track of her unreleased album Music was leaked onto the Internet during the last week of May, apparently by a radio station with an early promotional copy. "This music was stolen and was not intended for release for several months. It is still a work in progress," said Madonna's manager, Caresse Norman. "Those sites that offered a download of Madonna's music are violating her rights as an artist." Warner Bros. warned that "any site that posts or makes available our copyrighted material without our consent runs the risk of civil and criminal prosecution." Warner, as part of the RIAA, is already suing Napster for what could amount to billions of dollars in damages.

Some record labels are using the Internet as a promotional tool, putting out "teaser" tracks as MP3 files in the hopes of generating sales of higher-quality CDs. Despite the availability of his music on Napster and his lawsuit against the company, Dr. Dre's new album sold more than 1.7 million copies in its first week on the street. Did the Net help or hinder the album's sales? No one knows.

The core issue is: Who owns the music? Napster, like, has always claimed that it is not responsible for what its users do with copyrighted material—a pose that music-industry executives dismiss as hypocritical.

The controversy has been characterized more by bluff and bluster from all sides than by rational discourse. The best move in the Posturing Olympics was made by Napster itself, which on Friday, June 2 slapped a cease-and-desist order on punk rock group The Offspring for selling unauthorized hats, T-shirts, and bumper stickers emblazoned with the Napster name and logo. The previous day, an Offspring spokesperson said the action would "expose a huge hypocrisy" on Napster's part. The Offspring have enjoyed growing popularity through exposure via Napster, and have enthusiastically promoted the service for free. "It's all fair," said one of the Offspring. "We've already said you guys can use our stuff—we're gonna do yours, too. You shouldn't have any problem with that, should you?"