Digital Nation: As Technology Grows, So Do Lawsuits

Advances bring new boundaries to recording rights; similar flurry of litigation happened when radio debuted.

"Scorecard, scorecard! Can't tell your lawsuits without a scorecard!"

If you follow the digital-music scene, you've probably noticed a flood of court cases in recent months. To an outsider, it must seem like you're no one online until you've been served with legal papers.

Actually, the flurry of litigation should be expected to go hand in hand with developments such as the MP3 music format and file-sharing software like Napster, according to those in the industry.

"Every time there's a new technology, there's a ton of lawsuits," entertainment lawyer Whitney Broussard said. Courtrooms were similarly busy after recordings themselves were introduced and radio debuted, he said.

Most of the recent suits are testing the ground rules laid out by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a 1998 law designed to bring some order to the wilds of cyberspace. The problem, of course, is that technology zips like mercury, while the law plods molasses-style — but there's not much anyone can do about that.

"It's extremely hard to draft legislation that will be comprehensive and anticipate new developments," intellectual property lawyer Bart Lazar said.

If you haven't been watching the play-by-play, or if you're just in need of a highlight reel, here's a synopsis of just some of the suits that are helping digital-rights attorneys bill their clients for long hours.

Recording Industry Association of America vs. MP3.com: The music industry's major labels filed suit against the music Web site in January, alleging that the My.MP3.com online CD storage and playback service violated the copyrights of major labels. A federal judge ruled in favor of the labels. MP3.com recently pulled major label albums from the service as a "good-faith gesture." The company is now negotiating with the labels for licensing rights to continue My.MP3.com, and with the RIAA to agree on penalties for the original violation. MP3.com filed a countersuit charging unfair business practices that was subsequently dropped.

Paul McCartney vs. MP3.com: The ex–Beatle's MPL Communications publishing company sued in March, alleging MP3.com violated MPL's rights when it created the My.MP3.com service. The case is ongoing.

The Coasters, the Drifters and the Chambers Brothers vs. MP3.com and Sony, Time Warner and other labels: The three veteran R&B groups sued last month, claiming neither MP3.com nor the record labels had the right to transmit their work online without the artists' permission. The case is ongoing.

RIAA vs. Napster Inc.: The labels hit Napster in December, charging that the popular Napster MP3-trading software enables copyright infringement by allowing users to trade near-CD-quality MP3s for free without permission of the copyright holders. This month, a judge refused to dismiss the case on Napster's argument that it is protected as an Internet Service Provider under the DMCA. A hearing on the RIAA's request for a preliminary injunction to stop major-label music from being traded with Napster begins July 26, Napster lawyer Laurence Pulgram said.

Metallica vs. Napster: The big kahuna of digital suits in terms of publicity. The hard rockers, who decried judicial corruption in their song "And Justice for All" (RealAudio excerpt), filed suit in April, charging that Napster enables copyright infringement. The band also sued three colleges for helping users gain access to the process, but dropped the schools from the suit when the schools pledged to restrict Napster use. Napster has since blocked the accounts of 317,000 users that Metallica said traded their songs.

Dr. Dre vs. Napster: A carbon-copy of Metallica's suit, which should be no surprise considering that the rapper shares attorney Howard King with Metallica. Dr. Dre is expected to turn in his own list of alleged copyright violators this week. Napster's responses to suits by Metallica and Dr. Dre are due June 27, Pulgram said.

With Napster imitators such as Gnutella, Scour Exchange and CuteMX on the market, you can only wonder if Metallica and Dr. Dre plan to add to this litigation list with more suits. That's not likely, King said recently.

According to King, "We're not going to put the genie back in the bottle. ... But just because you can't solve the problem doesn't mean you shouldn't go after offenders."