May 10, 2000 12:20 PM PDT

Napster blocks Metallica fans; Dr. Dre takes names

Music software company Napster said it has blocked 317,377 user screen names that have been identified by Metallica as allegedly infringing on the rock band's copyrights.

Last week, the band delivered 13 boxes full of legal documents identifying usernames of people who allegedly made Metallica songs available online and demanded that they be blocked from the MP3 music-swapping service.

As reported yesterday, the music company agreed, but it cautioned that "it is possible that users have been mistakenly implicated."

"Napster has taken extraordinary steps to comply with Metallica's demands to block hundreds of thousands of its fans from using the Napster system," Fenwick & West attorney Lawrence Pulgram, who represents Napster, said in a statement today. "Napster has always stated that it would act in response to notice from copyright holders, and it has lived up to that commitment in good faith."

The company also added teeth to its software program to make the ban stick. Under earlier versions of the software, people could have reinstalled the program and logged in under a different name. But the company has added a feature that can tell whether a Napster user has been blocked, and it keeps most individuals from signing up using a different identity.

Still, more trouble could be on the way. Los Angeles attorney Howard King, who represents Metallica and rap artist Dr. Dre, said that Napster's service is still being scanned for people who might be pirating the rapper's music, and that a new list of usernames will be sent to Napster next week.

Napster's music-swapping program, which allows computer users to open their hard drives and quickly trade MP3 files with thousands of other people online, has thrown a panic into the music industry.

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The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued the company in December, alleging it had contributed to numerous copyright violations. Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre last month filed their own suits against Napster.

But Metallica raised the stakes on the legal battles last week. It hired British copyright protection firm NetPD to sniff out hundreds of thousands of Napster users who had made the band's songs available online though the Napster service and then presented the small software company with these individuals' usernames.

That put Napster in a legal bind: block its subscribers or risk undermining some of the legal arguments that it is using to counter the record industry's court attacks.

Napster has chosen the safer legal path, but it was careful to let its members know that they have a way to appeal their eviction.

"Because of the methods employed by Metallica in assembling its list of usernames, it is possible that users have been mistakenly implicated as infringing the copyrights of songs and recordings originally included on commercially released Metallica albums," the company wrote on its Web site yesterday.

Appealing the action could lead to reactivation of a Napster account, but it also could expose a person to a lawsuit from Metallica, the company said. Napster offered a full explanation of the appeal process on its Web site.

Metallica's lawyer said the band was unlikely to take its effort that far, however.

"Obviously, Napster knows Metallica then faces a Hobson's choice: Do they sue people who may or may not be fans?" King said. "But I don't think Metallica is going to sue fans, period, unless there's been wholesale infringement."

Despite Metallica's actions, scores of the band's songs were still available through Napster as late as this morning.

The new Napster software, which keeps people locked out even if they try to register a new username, could help the company in its legal battle against the RIAA.

In a preliminary see related story: Napster tests new copyright lawdecision late last week, a federal judge expressed some skepticism about the company's ability to prevent copyright piracy even if it did try to block pirates from its service.

"Napster has not shown that it reasonably implemented a policy for terminating repeat infringers," judge Marilyn Hall Patel wrote. An RIAA security expert was able to "easily (delete) all traces of his former Napster identity, convincing Napster that it had never seen (him) or his computer before," Patel said.

If enough Napster users are able to circumvent the new software somehow, other tools could be waiting in the wings. Copyright protection firm NetPD said last week that it has other data on the usernames it collected, including the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that identify individual computers connected to the Web. In some cases, this information could be a more effective way of blocking people.

Napster may be making moves against NetPD and other companies that would serve as copyright police, however. In the most recent version of its software license, Napster writes that people may not use the program to "invade the privacy of, obtain the identity of, or obtain any personal information about (including but not limited to IP addresses of) any Napster account holder or user."

 

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