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Hitting mute button on Napster

RIAA seeks final legal judgment

With Napster battered and swaying on the ropes, the music business has decided it’s time to move in for the kill.

Apparently eager to press its formidable legal advantage, the Recording Industry Assn. of America has filed a motion with the U.S. District Court in San Francisco for summary judgment against the embattled file-sharing service concerning its liability to labels and publishers.

“The evidence in this case is clear and irrefutable,” said Matt Oppenheim, the RIAA’s senior VP for business and legal affairs. “Today’s action brings us one step closer toward closure in this case by determining Napster’s liability.”

Astronomical numbers

Under the current copyright statutes, offenders convicted of willful infringement may be forced to pony up as much as $150,000 per work infringed. That means the liability for Napster, whose users have traded millions of tracks, could reach into the stratosphere.

Napster reps declined to comment on the motion or its implications.

The file swapper recently was dealt a number of setbacks in its legal battle with the industry, which started in 1999. Last February, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals effectively upheld an injunction, issued the previous July by District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, that required Napster to filter from its network any files that infringe on labels’ copyrights.

The injunction swiftly gutted Napster’s once-formidable user base: The number of unique users of the Napster software in 14 technology-savvy nations tumbled 31% from February to June, while time spent on the service by home users fell by 65% in the same interval, according to research firm Jupiter Media Metrix.

And in July, after she decided Napster’s filtering efforts were inadequate, Patel ordered Napster shut down entirely (the order was later stayed by the Ninth Circuit, pending an appeal).

RIAA confident

The latest filing “means the RIAA feels they have a strong enough case that they shouldn’t have to go to a jury trial,” said Larry Iser, a partner with intellectual property law firm Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman, Machtinger & Kinsella. “All the evidence that they would present at trial has already been presented” in the injunction proceedings, he added.

The RIAA’s latest motion comes at a particularly delicate time for Napster, since the company is on the verge of releasing a second-generation, subscription-based version of its service that the company claims will compensate rights holders and still permit file sharing.

Napster has maintained that the revamped service, expected to cost about $5 per month, will be ready to bow by the end of the summer.

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