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Music, film industries sue file-sharing nets

Major labels to bow subscription-based digital music services

The music and film industries have trained their legal guns on the latest generation of post-Napster file-sharing services, firing off lawsuits against companies that own three of the most popular free peer-to-peer networks: Morpheus, Grokster and Kazaa.

The complaints, filed in Central California District Court by the major studios and record label groups, allege that the three networks, all of which can trade text, pictures and video clips as well as music, flout copyright law by letting their users download and swap media they don’t own.

“A tremendous amount of copyright infringement takes place on and through defendants’ network every day,” the orgs alleged in the complaints. “Defendants participate in, facilitate, materially contribute to and encourage these infringements.”

The defendants were not available for comment.

The suits come as the five major music labels make final preparations to launch their own subscription-based digital music services. PressPlay, backed by Sony and Vivendi Universal, and MusicNet, supported by EMI, Bertelsmann, AOL Time Warner and RealNetworks, both are set to bow by the end of this year.

Fasttrack users

All three of the free services use a technology called Fasttrack, created by Kazaa’s parent company, Amsterdam-based Consumer Empowerment. Like Napster, Fasttrack has servers that act as hubs for the network, but most of the technological dirty work is done by a series of “SuperNodes,” or users with high-speed Internet connections that rout traffic.

Because the SuperNodes stand between the network and the company, Fasttrack and the services that use it may be better positioned than Napster was to fight litigation, said Lee Black, director of research at media analysis firm Webnoize.

“Where Napster got in trouble is it maintained directories, and was therefore aware of the content on its network,” Black said. “With Fasttrack, the SuperNodes are responsible for maintaining the addresses.”

According to Webnoize research, more than 1.5 billion files were transferred using the Fasttrack system in September, with a million users logged onto the network at any one time — up more than 70% from August.

Injunction against Napster

The Recording Industry Assn. of America last February obtained an injunction against Napster from District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who dismissed the netco’s arguments that it was unable to police its network for infringers and that Napster had enough non-infringing uses to justify its existence.

In subsequent months, traffic on the once-formidable network dwindled as the company worked to filter out infringing files, and the service eventually was taken down, ostensibly for upgrades to its database. Napster plans to launch a second-generation, subscription-based service later this year.

Another potential stumbling block for the latest suits is the difficulty of applying U.S. copyright law to Consumer Empowerment and Grokster Ltd., which operates out of the West Indies. Morpheus parent MusicCity is in Tennessee, however, and therefore may be easier to tackle.

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