|The legal pressure on MP3-swapping software Napster is growing, and with it the focus on university students who may be breaking the law by using it.
Angry at what they see as theft of their work, several recording artists have filed lawsuits targeting students. Specific individuals have not yet been named, but the attorney for artists Dr. Dre and Metallica, the first musicians to file lawsuits, says he can add names to the complaint as he gets more information.
Difficulties in identifying specific copyright violators could make the exercise impractical. But the development has stirred anger among some students, who criticize "millionaire musicians" for targeting relatively poor fans. At the same time, the move is being called a "scare tactic" by some in the legal community.
"It's like going after drug users instead of drug cartels," said Ron Cooley, a copyright attorney with Jenkens & Gilchrist in Chicago. "You can go after all the drug users in the world, but it's not going to stop the problem."
That doesn't mean it won't be a successful tactic, however. Already, several high-profile universities named in early versions of the lawsuits have blocked or restricted Napster use on campus, choosing to limit their legal risk. Other schools are quickly following suit before the legal spotlight is turned on them.
Napster, along with a growing number of rival software programs, has shaken a recording industry already scrambling to adapt to a world of online music. The software allows people to connect their computers directly to thousands of others on the Net to quickly swap songs or other files.
The idea has taken off in universities, where students often have access to speedy Net connections--and the time to spend building music libraries. At any time, thousands of people can be seen online in the Napster community, sharing hundreds of thousands of often-copyrighted songs.
But until this point, students and other individuals have been using Napster and its clones largely without fear of direct reprisals. Many may believe that the system is anonymous and that they can't be traced, and some may be unaware of the possible legal consequences of their actions.
Although techniques for tracking down specific Napster users are still largely untested, systems administrators said fingering an individual is possible.
"If the RIAA came to us and asked us who was using a particular (Internet Protocol) address at a particular time, it's entirely possible that we could identify that individual," said Kevin Schmidt, a network administrator at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The root of the problem
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which has taken the lead in trying to shut down Napster use, has conspicuously refrained from targeting individuals, in part because it is fearful of a public relations fallout. Instead, the organization has been conducting educational campaigns on college campuses, which it says has helped reduce the number of pirate MP3 sites on the Web.
Trying to target the millions of individuals who download a few songs to their computers opens a difficult can of worms, attorneys say. Tracking down individuals who have violated specific artists' copyrights will be expensive and time-consuming, requiring much the same kind of computer detective work used to track down online hackers.
"The record industry has its work cut out for it," said David Given, a copyright attorney with Phillips & Erlewine in San Francisco. "They're facing an enormous task trying to identify individual infringers."
Some of this computer forensics work could be done by looking at Napster's internal network logs. That depends on how much information the company keeps on individual people's sessions, however. And the company says it doesn't have this kind of data in its logs, as people make connections directly with each other and not through Napster servers.
But investigators could avoid the company altogether. The Napster software allows two people using it to see each other's IP addresses--strings of numbers that identify computers on the Net. Lawyers for Metallica, Dr. Dre or anyone else could use the Napster software in a kind of sting operation, capturing the address of anyone trying to download or distribute copyrighted works.
They could then take this address to a university and likely could trace it through the school's records to a particular student's machine.
Even if individuals can be identified, however, students are unlikely to have enough money to pay damages--even if a judge can be persuaded to levy damages against individuals who have stolen just a few songs by a particular musician.
Howard King, the Los Angeles attorney representing Metallica and Dr. Dre, says the issue is on the back burner for now; but that doesn't mean it won't come forward later.
"Our focus is not on chasing students at this time," King said. "But if this does turn out to be technically doable, and we find out there are people who instead of studying for finals are downloading thousands of songs, then that might be the kind of person we go after."
The industry's warning
Despite these hurdles, the music industry does have a history of going after individual offenders in hopes of setting a warning example for others.
ASCAP and BMI, which provide licenses for radio stations or other people using recordings, have gone to court against individual DJs who use records or other recordings for parties or performances without licenses.
Once that point has been reached, it's difficult for individuals to defend themselves, even if their violations are relatively small, some lawyers say.
"If it's noncommercial, its more difficult to convince a judge that it's unlawful activity," Given said. "But the law is the law. Owners and publishers are clearly working from a position of strength."
But are students getting that message?
Not yet, many say. Although more universities are blocking Napster, students are finding ways around the bans or are using competing programs, such as Scour.net's Exchange or Gnutella.
"In terms of people stopping, I don't think it's going to prevent them from downloading music," said Jon Barsook, a freshman at USC. "People might become more cautious, so other people can't see that they have Dr. Dre on their computers. But I haven't heard any students express concern about the lawsuits."