Online group labeled a snoop

Bootlegs: A copyright-guarding company peeks into music lovers' computers, and some say that's going too far.

March 05, 2001|By Dawn C. Chmielewski | Dawn C. Chmielewski,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The music industry's battle to halt electronic distribution of bootlegged songs has shifted from courtrooms in San Francisco to a place closer to home - your computer's hard drive.

A new technology is crawling undetected through the same computer networks that connect music fans to their favorite songs. Like a houseguest who secretly rummages through your medicine cabinet, it peers at individual hard drives in search of certain songs. Once it finds a copy of a particular work - say, Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" - it notifies your Internet service provider to terminate your online connection until you remove the offending copy.

Nashville-based Copyright.net says it has used its software robot "Copyright Agent" to serve more than 1 million copyright violation notices to Internet providers on behalf of 750 song writers and performers. It launched a fresh crackdown last week, demanding that the granddaddy of all music-swapping sites, Napster, remove more than 1 million unauthorized copies of Roy Orbison songs.

The notices were sent on behalf of Roy Orbison Music and Barbara Orbison Music.

Copyright.net's chief executive, Tim Smith, says he's not trying to antagonize Roy Orbison fans. Rather, he's trying to kill off the black market for pirated songs so a legitimate model for music distribution can emerge - one that compensates composers, performers and record labels for their work. Smith said his technology links music lovers to a place where they can download rights-protected versions of the same songs for free.

But critics say Copyright.net's methods raise chilling privacy implications; and its bounty hunter approach to fighting copyright infringement may undermine its stated goal of creating a legitimate marketplace for buying songs online.

"You just threw a brick through my window and you want me to buy a new window? That's not a viable business model," said Talal Shamoon, senior vice president of InterTrust, a company that develops digital rights management technology. "They're treating a person like a criminal. ... They're doling out punishment. And by the way, that's poison to music distribution. Now punishment is equated with the act of paying for content."

Copyright.net's copyright crackdown is one small part of the music industry's widening assault on the unauthorized distribution of songs, one that has moved beyond the legal battle with Napster to warfare against its numerous rivals.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Recording Industry Association of America, the record labels' principal trade group, sent 60 legal notices to ISPs, demanding that they disconnect other Napster-like services on their networks.

Cary Sherman, general counsel for the RIAA, said the recording industry withheld any action against Napster-inspired file-sharing services until the courts sorted out the legal issues. But since the record labels' decisive victory against Napster in federal appeals court Feb. 12, the RIAA launched a crackdown against online infringement.

"There's really nothing that's truly surprising about this," said Sherman. The RIAA first sued Napster in December 1999. Until now, the recording industry's anti-piracy efforts have targeted corporations such as Napster, which it says indirectly contributes to song theft on a widespread basis.

Not everyone agrees with Copyright.net's approach to digital rights management. Of the 3,100 Internet service providers it notified of alleged acts of infringement, only the smallest complied, Smith said. Major providers, such as Earthlink, disagree with Copyright.net's interpretation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998 to protect Internet providers from being held liable for the acts of their users.

That law requires Internet providers to block access to massive computer servers on its network - not individual hard drives, the ISPs say.

Privacy rights advocates say that while songwriters and others in the recording industry certainly have the right to protect their work, Copyright.net's methods for tracking alleged infringement go too far.

It compromises privacy, said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.

These tools - while sophisticated - aren't smart enough to distinguish between a copy of the Pointer Sisters' song "Slow Hand" obtained illicitly through a file-swapping service from a track ripped off a CD that the consumer owns, Rotenberg said.

The Digital Media Association, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that represents the interests of companies that deliver digital music and video delivery over the Internet, said there are better approaches to protecting the rights of songwriters and performers - ones that entail less potential backlash from consumers.

"I think you have to have a combination of carrots and sticks," said Jonathan Potter, executive director of the association.

"The sticks don't have to be cease-and-desist letters."

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