Napster ordered to block access

Judge tells Web site to begin removing copyrighted material

12,000 songs by Friday

Internet file-sharing blossomed amid dot-com decline

March 07, 2001|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Napster, the song-swapping Internet site born of a college student's frustrations that came to attract millions of users worldwide, was ordered yesterday by a federal judge to begin blocking access to most of its enormous catalog of music by week's end.

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, in a much-awaited decision, instructed music distributors and publishers that sued Napster Inc. to provide the company lists of songs they want removed from the popular Web site. The Redwood City, Calif.,company would then have three business days to block access to those songs, the judge ruled.

"We are gratified the District Court acted so promptly in issuing its injunction requiring Napster to remove infringing works from its system," said Hilary Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the Recording Industry Association of America.

Attorneys for the music industry, who received the injunction late Monday, said yesterday that they have met the judge's conditions for at least 12,000 songs, which Napster must block by Friday.

Napster officials had no immediate comment. Although Rosen's order allows the 2-year-old company to continue, it could face a trial and be liable for millions of dollars in damages if it doesn't comply. Patel told the company to report to her by Monday on its progress in removing protected material.

Patel reworked an injunction she issued last summer that briefly shut Napster. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the original injunction was too broad, but set the stage for yesterday's action by agreeing with Patel that Napster was improperly transmitting copyrighted material.

Such acts happen every day - whenever someone copies a tape, video or CD - but not on the scale of Napster. More than 14 million people downloaded music from Napster in January - more than ordered from, checked a forecast on the Weather Channel's site or asked Jeeves a question online.

While countless dot-com ventures died in the past year after spending millions desperately trying to carve a name in the marketplace, Napster mushroomed by word-of-mouth without taking in a penny in subscriber fees.

In less than two years, it had more than 60 million users.

But what made the story of its explosive popularity so compelling - and controversial - were questions it raised about the taking of "intellectual property."

The company portrayed itself as a hero for the music-listening public against the recording industry Goliath. Its Web site, with the cat-in-headphones logo, describes it as "a community" instead of a business.

Its rise is a Horatio Alger tale for the nascent Internet: College freshman in Boston becomes fed up with trying to send music to a Virginia friend via the Net. Designs his own system, three years after getting his first computer. Starts a company with an uncle, who envisions grand potential. Names it for a despised nickname that describes his "nappy" hair, which is why he wears a buzz cut. Web site becomes so popular among college students, campuses with clogged networks ban it, including Northeastern University, where the student created it before dropping out to launch the company.

But the rags-to-riches story was only half complete. Napster maintains an immense financial stake in reaching a settlement.

The 50-employee firm offered last month to pay $1 billion in licensing fees over five years to settle the 1999 copyright-infringement suit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America, on behalf of Bertelsmann AG, Vivendi Universal SA, AOL Time Warner Inc., Sony Corp. and EMI Group. Bertelsmann, a German media conglomerate, broke from the pack last fall to team up with Napster. It lent Napster $60 million to create a digital-music service by summer that would charge subscribers $3 to $10 a month.

The future of Napster, and companies like it, is likely to have a substantial impact on the electronics industry. Sales of devices such as MP3 players and compact disc burners, which allow users to make their own CDs, were fueled by Napster's free music-on-demand. Similar controversies may follow over the control of video property, such as television and movies, "shared" on the Internet.

Desire for such services may be vital to the growth of the $270 billion telecommunications sector because it would spur demand for greater "bandwidth" that could transmit digital data more quickly, said David Park, an analyst with the Delphi Group, a technology consulting firm in Boston. Weakness in the market has led the telecom industry to lay off 43,000 workers this year.

But beyond the commercial ripples, Napster's lasting impact may be how it altered music delivery and made the American public less intimidated about technology.

"It's ugly technology. It looks like it was written by a college student in his spare time - because it was," said Kevin Werbach, who follows Internet trends for Release 1.0, a New York-based technology newsletter. "But obviously, the market spoke with its actions. "

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