May 11, 1999 5:00 AM PDT

MP3 copyright lawsuit inches along

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A dispute between two MP3 companies over alleged copyright infringement has taken a small step forward, with the accused stipulating to a preliminary injunction.

Nullsoft, which created and distributes the popular Winamp MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3) player, last week released a new version of the player. One of the changes made was the replacement of the so-called Nitrane decoder with one by the Fraunhofer Institute, which created the decoder that is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard, according to Rex Manz, director of business strategies for Nullsoft.

A decoder is a program that allows a user to revert an MP3 file to its original format, such as WAV, so it can be played back or recoded to another format.

The change was MP3: Sound and fury made because of a $20 million lawsuit filed in March against Nullsoft by PlayMedia, which develops digital content distribution and management software and hardware including the AMP MP3 playback engine. The suit accuses Nullsoft of using the copyright-protected AMP code, which was written by PlayMedia principal Tomislav Uzelac, in its Winamp player.

Last month, PlayMedia filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, seeking to stop Nullsoft from distributing or selling Winamp with the disputed code in it.

Nullsoft made the change last week so that the lawsuit "is simply looking backwards," according to Manz, who called Nullsoft's move "a business decision." In other words, the suit, which ostensibly addresses the past, present, and future, now only refers to something Nullsoft was doing in the past.

"We're in the business of doing business, not litigation," Manz told CNET News.com. The company made the change to Winamp in advance of a hearing to determine whether a preliminary injunction should be granted against it because "we saw the hearing as a waste of time," he said, adding that the change was made specifically because of the potential damage the lawsuit could do to Nullsoft's business.

The dispute comes during an active but contentious time in the online music download arena. Though many consider MP3 a de facto standard for music downloads, it is reviled by many in the music industry because its ease of use makes it a favorite among music pirates. Many technology and music companies have announced plans to introduce or have unveiled competing technology.

Although MP3 has raised a number of legal issues between proponents of the format and the mainstream record industry, the dispute between PlayMedia and Nullsoft pits two MP3 proponents against each other.

Manz noted that by changing the decoder and stipulating to the injunction, Nullsoft is not admitting guilt. The injunction, granted by U.S. District Court judge Howard Matz in the Central District of California, says: "Whereas, by entering into this stipulation, Nullsoft makes no admission and preserves all of its defenses for trial."

Brian Litman, chief executive of PlayMedia, noted that Nullsoft is "experiencing customer dissatisfaction" since it made the change to the Fraunhofer decoder.

However, "some say the Fraunhofer has better fidelity quality and some say it doesn't," Manz said. "As with any product that's out there in the public, some people like the old version better.

"There's been a steady increase in Winamp downloads for some time, and the new version is no exception," he added.

 

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