Net Piracy Cases Clog Courts

In an ironic role reversal, a San Francisco, California-based music firm filed a lawsuit against Amazon last week for an alleged patent infringement. Amazon threw off the spark that ignited the patent firestorm when it sued Barnesandnoble.com last year for stealing its 1-Click shopping feature.

No Technology Sampling Allowed

In the current case, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Intouch Group alleges that Amazon and four other firms violated a patent on technology that allows consumers to sample music online.

The patent, referred to as a “network apparatus and method for preview of music products and compilation of market data,” was granted to Intouch in October, extending an earlier patent involving kiosks placed in music stores.

Intouch’s kiosk system, the iStation, allows users to listen to samples of songs before purchasing CDs. It also allows businesses to gather demographic data through a user registration process.

However, Intouch CEO Joshua Kaplan said the patent goes beyond just playing songs online. “It covers [a user] going onto a site and requesting to listen to pre-selected portions of pre-recorded music — anything from sample up to full track,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Ivory Towers Soiled

Adding to the patent brouhaha, heavy metal rock band Metallica is accusing three universities and the makers of popular music-sharing Internet software of copyright infringement and racketeering. The San Francisco-based rock band filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday.

The federal suit contends that San Mateo, California-based Napster Inc., the University of Southern California, Yale University and Indiana University encouraged users of Napster software to trade copyrighted material without the band’s permission.

The Napster software allows Internet users to search for and swap music directly from hard drive to hard drive. The music is stored in a digital format known as MP3.

Metallica alleges the universities allowed piracy of copyrighted songs to flourish by failing to block access to the Napster sharing program, and thereby violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

“We take our craft — whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork — very seriously, as do most artists,” Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said in a statement published on the Elektra Records Web site. “It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is.”

Napster Regrets

“We regret that the band’s management saw fit to issue a press release — and to file a lawsuit — without even attempting to contact Napster,” Eileen Richardson, the company’s chief executive officer, told the Wall Street Journal. “But if these people insist on turning it over to lawyers, we’ll defend the case on that turf.”

Napster is also being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America in federal court in San Francisco. The trade group, which represents major recording labels, is alleging copyright infringement by Napster and is seeking $100,000 (US$) for each song shared using Napster software.

Fishing for Trouble

What is really pathetic about these cases is that all of them could have been avoided. When Amazon decided to enforce its 1-Click patent — which probably would not have been issued if the patent office had been more technologically astute at the time — the company all but guaranteed that other inappropriately issued patents would be enforced.

Amazon opened the can of worms, and it was only a matter of time until the company would find itself on the hook.

In the Metallica case, the universities might have avoided some legal unpleasantness — while setting some standards for ethical behavior — if they had paid a little more attention to how their students use taxpayers’ computers and bandwidth. By turning a blind eye, they became unwitting parties to intellectual property theft.

If artists’ rights are violated in the halls of learning, can they be safe anywhere?

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