Record Industry Files Criminal Action Against MP3 Search Engine

Move against largest such site on Net is unprecedented.

In an unprecedented move against Internet music files, the global record industry pressed criminal charges Wednesday against the largest MP3 search site on the Net.

Claiming that Lycos' "FAST MP3 Search" site (mp3.lycos.com) "infringes copyright on a mass scale," the International Federation of the Phonographic Industries (IFPI) filed a complaint with police in Oslo, Norway, against FAST Search and Transfer, the Norwegian technology company that powers the site. The IFPI, based in Switzerland, represents 1,300 record companies in 39 countries.

On Wednesday, the Recording Industry Association of America, which is affiliated with the IFPI, announced it was considering a potential lawsuit against Lycos, the search-engine company based in Waltham, Mass. But late Thursday (March 25) the RIAA said any legal action was on hold.

"We are still in productive discussions," Hilary Rosen, RIAA president and chief executive officer, said.

Lycos spokesperson Brian Payea confirmed Thursday that talks with the RIAA are ongoing, but said he could not comment on the IFPI action.

The music industry has fought MP3s (short for Motion Picture Experts Group, audio layer 3) since they first took hold on the Net in 1997. The format allows music to be distributed online quickly in near-CD quality. The RIAA and IFPI, however, say the format's lack of copyright security encourages Internet piracy.

Both groups have moved to shut down individual websites hosting MP3 files without the permission of the copyright holder. But the charges against FAST mark the first time either group has taken action against a search engine.

At the heart of IFPI's case is the organization's assertion that Lycos' "FAST MP3 Search" does not simply point to various websites, but facilitates the download of unauthorized MP3 files.

Most of Lycos' links are to areas of the Internet known as FTP (file transfer protocol) sites. On Thursday afternoon, for instance, a search for the Offspring's "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)" (RealAudio excerpt) would have turned up hundreds of links, with many if not most of them being FTP links.

Clicking on those links begins the download process without taking the user to an outside website, according to the IFPI.

"It doesn't make any difference whether you are on a third party's site or are accessing it through FAST's database," said an IFPI staffer who has worked closely on the case and asked not to be identified by name. "The result is the same. You do not even feel or see that you are transmitted to another site."

FAST CEO Espen Brodin said Thursday he could not comment yet on the action.

The Lycos/FAST engine boasts more than 500,000 MP3 links, a figure the company claimed was 10 times greater than any other MP3 search engine when "FAST MP3 Search" was launched Feb. 1. While no one has estimated how many of those links are authorized, it's widely agreed by industry watchers that the bulk of the files were posted without permission.

The IFPI is hoping not only to remove any unauthorized links from the engine, but also to have penalties imposed on FAST, the staffer said.

While no similar actions outside of Norway are currently planned, an IFPI spokesperson is not ruling out proceedings against other engines.

"Any search engine that's performed a function similar to the very sophisticated searches that FAST can do, we would regard in a similar way," IFPI's Adrian Strain said.

One analyst predicted the legal action would be "yet another black eye" on a music industry already criticized as behind the times.

"They have very strong legal claims and have every right to protect their copyright," said Mark Hardie, who analyzes the entertainment and technology industries for Forrester Research.

"But they also seem reluctant to recognize that this is not the 1940s [with people] buying their first phonographs. We have a global network that can get to just about anyone anywhere. That, in and of itself, changes the nature of delivering entertainment product."


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