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Judge delays decision on Napster lawsuit

A federal judge has delayed issuing a decision on the recording industry’s copyright infringement lawsuit against song-swap service Napster, giving the two sides until Feb. 17 to reach a settlement.

A spokesman for Napster said Wednesday that U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel agreed to a Jan. 17 request for a 30-day stay on a summary judgment ruling.

“We are optimistic that the good faith efforts that the parties have put into settlement and licensing discussions over the past several months will bring the litigation to a swift conclusion over the next several weeks, removing the last barrier to Napster’s launch of our new membership service,” Napster’s Chief Executive Konrad Hilbers said in a prepared statement.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents the major labels in their lawsuit against Napster, said a settlement might now be possible.

“As we have said from day one, our objective has been for Napster to become a legitimate music service,” RIAA President and CEO Hilary Rosen said in a statement.

“Since relaunching a few weeks ago, we understand they have limited their repertoire to licensed music. Resolving the lawsuit may now be feasible.”

The recording industry had requested summary judgment against Napster in the case – a move which would leave open only how much in damages Napster would have to pay and what form of injunction would be imposed on its service.

Napster’s lawyers have said that, if necessary, they would prefer a full trial to determine liability.

Napster, once the high-flying pioneer of online music swapping, has been sidelined since July as a result of a preliminary injunction issued by Judge Patel in March last year, barring the trade of any copyrighted material on its site.

The injunction came at the behest of major record labels, which sued the company in 1999 accusing it of facilitating copyright infringement by allowing digital versions of their artists’ songs to be shared for free, in many cases thousands of times each.

The service this month launched a test version of its new copyright-compliant service in a bid to get back in business, although it will not feature copyrighted music from major labels.

Instead, the test version of Napster features some 100,000 files licensed to the company for free by the mostly small, independent labels who have agreed to work with the service.

Nevertheless, Napster officials have said they expect to sign deals soon with some or all of the major music labels soon and relaunch the full version of Napster sometime toward the end of the first quarter.

While the current test version is free, the full version of Napster would cost somewhere between $5 and $10 per month.

It remains unclear how many of the some 60 million people that Napster attracted at the height of its popularity will return to the service, which now faces online music swapping rivals such as Morpheus, KaZaA, and Gnutella.

The big recording labels arrayed against Napster include AOL Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Music, EMI Group Plc, Bertelsmann AG’s BMG, Vivendi Universal’s Universal Music, and Sony Music.

Bertelsmann has subsequently become a major investor in Napster and is working to restart the service.

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