RIAA v. NAPSTER in Layman's Terms

by Dave Dolendi 5/22/00

The aforegoing is our opinion based on the facts presented. It is not intended to be legal advice nor should it be construed as inviting an attorney-client relationship - LSSI

On December 6, 1999 the various record companies got the ball rolling against Napster by filing a suit in Federal District Court alleging Contributory and Vicarious Copyright Infringement. (17 U.S.C.502). The meat of the record companies allegations involve Federal Law and Federal Statutes and since Copyright Law is a Federal Matter a U.S. Supreme Court Ruling (assuming it gets that high) will be binding on all 50 states.

However, any Appellate Court decision or lower court decision will only be binding on the Circuit which the District Court (lowest federal court) or Appellate Court (intermediate court) sits. This case was filed in the Northern District of California and California falls into the 9th Circuit. The 9th Circuit is the largest of the 13 Appellate Court Circuits and encompasses CA, AZ, OR, NV, MT, ID, WA, HI, AK.

This is not to say that the other Federal Circuits will not adopt the reasoning of any decision rendered by the 9th Circuit if they were to have a similar case in front of them, since it will likely be highly persuasive to them, but again, unless it goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, the other Circuits are not obligated to follow the decision in this case. There is also an array of State charges thrown into the mix of allegations against Napster but for the most part those are minor and will probably have very little affect on internet use on the national level since these type of decisions are only controlling on the particular state where the decision comes down (in this case, California).

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In order to understand what is going on with this case a definition of some of this legal jargon is definitely needed. It is probably best to begin by defining Copyright Infringement in a way that makes sense to the typical MP3 user. A Copyright is essentially a federal statute that protects the works of artists and authors and gives them exclusive right to publish their works or determine who may publish their works.

For most works a Copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 50 years. The Term "Infringement" simply refers to the unauthorized use of copyrighted material and is an area of law that is not easy to delineate. For example, for written words a Copyright only extends to the "arrangement" of the written words (as similarly equated with a term called "Plagiarism" most of us are familiar with and probably now making it understandable why your teachers and professors gave you a "5 or more word" rule when writing your term papers and placing quotes around words and ideas taken from other sources).

"Contributory" and "Vicarious" are terms used to describe different forms of Imputed Liability. Simply put, when someone is Vicariously liable for something it is similar to saying "you did not do anything wrong, however, because of your superior position in being able to control what someone else did, you should be just as liable."

This type of liability is very typical in Employer-Employee relationships when an employee commits some intentional or negligent act while on the job. Thus, an employer who did nothing wrong will still be liable for the independent acts of his employees simply because the employee is said to be "within the employer's control" while he is on the job.

So essentially what RIAA is alleging is that Napster's Users are committing copyright infringement and Napster should be liable because they can control the individual infringers from committing the acts, and also, Napster promotes such infringement by advertising the ease of finding songs through their server. The fact that RIAA and Metallica are suing Napster does not mean they cannot sue each individual Copyright Infringer who illegally downloads a song as well. However, the likelihood of them pursuing legal action against each Copyright Infringer is slim since it would be very costly and they would probably have difficulty collecting on judgments from the "empty pocket" lay person.

Napster's primary defense to the allegations by RIAA is based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which grants immunity to Internet Service Providers (ISP) 17 U.S.C. 512(a). Napster contends that they are essentially an ISP and their entire system falls within the protections of this act. The act specifically states that liability will be limited "for infringement of copyright by reason of the {service} provider's transmitting, routing, or providing connections for, material through a system or network controlled or operated by or for the service provider, or by reason of the intermediate and transient storage of that material in the course of such transmitting, routing, or providing connections."

Simply put, this essentially immunizes an ISP who controls or operates a server or network and then someone else uses their network or server to infringe on a Copyright. Additionally, an ISP must meet several other conditions to be protected under the act and these are listed below:

  1. the transmission of copyrighted material was initiated by someone other than the ISP itself.
  2. the routing, connections, or storage of copyrighted material is done by a technical process without selection of material by ISP
  3. the service provider does not select the recipients of materials except as an automatic response to the request of another person
  4. no copy of the copyrighted material made by the service provider is maintained on their system or network; and
  5. the material is transmitted through the system or network without modification of it's content.

All five of these conditions must be met in order for Napster to be immunized by the Act. So Napster's arguments are:

  1. a Napster user, and never Napster itself, initiates transmission of an MP3,
  2. the transmission occurs by an automatic technical process and is not subject to any arbitrary input from Napster,
  3. Napster does not chose the recipients of MP3 files,
  4. Napster does not make a copy of the material during transmissions nor do they store files on their system, and
  5. the material or content is not modified during transmission

RIAA refutes Napster's claim by claiming that every person's computer who is a Napster user is part of the "System" and thus element #4 is not satisfied because then copies of MP3's are stored on the "System" longer than necessary, and therefore, Napster should not be immune from liability.

Napster filed a pre-trial motion known as a "motion for summary judgment" which they essentially argued everything listed above. A motion for summary judgment is essentially a motion filed before trial that asks the judge to make a ruling one way or the other because the facts of the case are so obviously one sided that "reasonable minds could not rule any other way" and there would be no reason to have a jury listen to the facts of the case.

These types of motions are very common but unless a judge has tons of case law or precedent to follow, these motions are usually denied, as was the case here. The fact that there is very little case law interpreting DMCA and the unique issues in this case, it was almost assured that Napster would lose the pre-trial motion. However, this does not mean that all is lost. Napster will have to present their case to the court and after witnesses testify and the court has more information, it is very possible Napster may succeed against most of the allegations.


There is some interesting Federal Case law out there that seems to bear some similarities regarding the issues in the Napster Case. Back in the early 80's Universal Studios filed suit against Sony Corporation when Sony's "BetaMax" VCR became popular. (464 U.S. 417) Universal alleged that Sony was Contributory and Vicarious liable for Copyright Infringement for producing the "BetaMax", because individual owners of a "Betamax" could easily make illegal copies of Copyrighted material. This is similar to the allegations in the Napster case.

In the Universal case, the lowest court (Federal District Court) denied Universal's allegations and entered a judgment for Sony. Universal appealed to the 9th Appellate Court (which by the way is the same Circuit that would decide this case should it be appealed) and the Appellate Court reversed the decision of the lower court holding Sony Liable.

Sony then petitioned (appealed) to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court granted Sony Permission to hear the case. This is important since the Supreme Court could deny the petitioner (Sony) permission to hear the case; in which case, the Appellate Court decision is final (but again, only binding on the Circuit the Appellate Court sits). However, since the U.S. Supreme Court did grant permission to hear the case and Reversed the Decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and ruled for the Sony Corporation, the U.S Supreme Court decision is now binding on all 50 states.

The court essentially held that "the sale of VCR's to the general public does not constitute Contributory or Vicarious Copyright Infringement." The court also found that "manufacturers of VCR's could not be liable for the illegal infringement of the users of their machines" (464 U.S. at 417).

Currently the "BetaMax" case is valid case law binding on all the states. However, due to the differences of VCR's and the internet, as well as other unique factors of the Napster case, a lower court could disregard the precedent of "BetaMax" by indicating this case is different due to it's unique facts, thus, a lower court could theoretically say: "the BetaMax case is not similar to this case so we don't have to follow it." However, if a higher court does think the issues in the BetaMax case are similar to the Napster Case, they could reverse the lower court.

One more interesting note also, the "BetaMax" case ended up being a very close decision for the U.S. Supreme Court with 5 judges ruling for Sony and 4 judges ruling for Universal Studios (as you may already know all it takes is a majority (5) of the 9 justices to render a binding decision).

Of the 4 dissenting (non-majority) justices only Chief Justice Rehnquist is still on the Court. This may be good news for Napster since we would guess this case will eventually make it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. This would make it interesting due to the unpredictability of the U.S. Supreme Court in this particular area. In addition to Rehnquist, there are only two other justices on the bench now who were on the court when the "BetaMax" case came down (Stevens and O'Connor).

Since it takes a few years for a case to make it through the appeals process to the Supreme Court it is possible that none of these justices would decide this case. All three of these justices have expressed a desire to step down from the bench following the next presidential election which would make nine justice with no prior experience on the bench in this matter to determine the fate of Napster and possibly the entire MP3 industry if this case were to make it that far.

We hope this shed's some light on a some (and by no means all) of the issues bouncing around the internet and in the news about the Napster lawsuit. Any more comments or questions about this case can be directed to our message board on our website at www.lssilaw.org.


Dave Dolendi, President
On behalf of Law Students Saving the Internet (LSSI)

We would like to thank David and the LSSI for their wonderful job in bringing clarity to merits the Napster case. As this trial unfolds, we hope they will offer us more insight to help us better understand the growing implications of technology and the law --editor.


Some sites.

Screwmetallica.org http://www.logowonders.com/screwmetallica/

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