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MP3.Com Blamed For 'Viral' Copyright Infringement

A new lawsuit filed against MP3.com seeks to hold the San Diego music-locker service liable not only for songs it improperly copied and distributed, but also for every bootleg track exchanged through Napster and other underground file-swapping services.

The suit, filed on behalf of 52 independent songwriters and music publishers, accuses MP3.com of “viral” infringement. It contends that MP3.com’s technology set the stage for widespread music piracy, enabling bootlegged songs to pass from computer to computer faster than you can say “Oops, I Did It Again.”

The argument goes like this: MP3.com made compressed copies of about 900,000 songs, which it placed on its computer servers – without obtaining the rights to do so. That created a vast bootleg library, from which MP3.com subscribers could download songs. Once on the user’s computer hard drive, a single song could be copied and passed around infinitely in the music underground.

“If a song has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times on Napster, and at least a portion of that is attributable to MP3.com, the magnitude of damages that should be assessed would be many, many times what they would be liable for under direct infringement,” said Ray Mantle, a New York attorney representing the independent artists.

Mantle is seeking damages greater than the award Universal Music Group won from MP3.com last September, when a federal district court judge found it willfully infringed the record label’s copyrights. At that time, the judge ordered MP3.com to pay $25,000 for every Universal CD on the My.MP3.com service.

The companies reached an out-of-court settlement of $53.4 million. The rancorous court battle ended unexpectedly in the spring, however, with a marriage proposal. Universal’s parent, Vivendi Universal, announced plans to acquire MP3.com for $372 million to bolster its digital music distribution.

MP3.com declined to comment on the Aug. 8 suit filed by Copyright.net, a Tennessee music-publishing company that represents about 750 songwriters and publishers.

Copyright.net has been known to embrace unorthodox methods to protect the rights of its songwriters and publishers. Privacy advocates criticized one initiative earlier this year to crack down on online infringement.

Copyright.net developed software that crawls through popular file-sharing services such as Napster, sniffing for unauthorized copies of songs whose rights it represents, including Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” It then notifies the user’s Internet service provider to terminate its online connection until the infringed work is removed.

Jay Senter, Copyright.net’s president and chief executive, said he elected to go to court after settlement talks with MP3.com collapsed in the spring.

“We have clients – 750 of them. We have a need to be responsible, to give them a fair shot of being compensated for infringement. That’s the reason we decided to go forward,” he said.

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