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Record labels sue MP3.com. John Tesh sues over his URL. DVD makers sue everyone. Attorneys are finally discovering the Net.

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In cyberspace, as in the Old West, the surest indication that a wide-open frontier is about to close is the arrival of the lawyers. You don’t have to own The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on DVD to notice the major role that a flurry of lawsuits is playing in reshaping the Internet and how we use it. Consider:

— The World Wrestling Federation recently used a new international arbitration process to pile-drive Californian Michael Bosman into surrendering the http://www.worldwrestling federation.com domain name.

— Mega-cranially endowed music composer/television personality John Tesh is suing online celebrity-info clearinghouse CelebSites (http://www.celebsites.com) over ownership of the johntesh.com Web address.

— The major movie studios, professional sports leagues, and television networks are ganging up to take on iCraveTV.com (http://www.icraveTV.com), a tiny Canadian company that streams broadcast-television programming onto the Web.

— DVD manufacturers are suing various website operators to force them to stop distributing a program that cracks the security code of DVD movies and enables them to be copied illegally.

— RealNetworks is suing Streambox Inc. over software that allows users to translate RealAudio and RealVideo streaming files into such downloadable (and copyable) formats as MP3.

— The major record labels are slapping popular Net-music site MP3.com (http://www.mp3.com) with a copyright-infringement lawsuit alleging billions of dollars in damages.

So why are the dot-coms suddenly racking up more billable hours than a future Anna Nicole Smith husband? Simple: The old-line content companies have finally realized what the Internet means to their businesses. ”The digitization of all media signals an irrevocable change in the nature of intellectual property,” says veteran technology writer Howard Rheingold, ”because it is so easily copied and transmitted.”

Cracking the DVD-encryption code, for example, opens the door to perfect digital duplicates of Hollywood hits that can be copied or transmitted over the Internet. Likewise, the record companies fear that MP3.com’s services have created a new wave of music bootlegging, this time with digital clarity. ”It’s shameless,” says Ron Stone, whose Gold Mountain Entertainment represents Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Bonnie Raitt, and others. ”[MP3.com] translated about 45,000 titles into MP3 format and put them on their site illegally. It’s as if a company put up a site where they offered The Wall Street Journal for free and sold advertising around it as if it was their own.” Counters MP3.com’s defiant CEO, Michael Robertson: ”What we’ve done is simply allow CD owners to get more enjoyment from the music they’ve invested in. We designed a system which actually will sell more CDs.”

Rival myplay.com says MP3.com’s problems could have been avoided by including the record companies from the outset. ”We spent a long time with the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] before launching this service,” says myplay senior VP David Pakman, ”and came up with the ‘private locker’ concept [a system where users store their music files on myplay.com’s server rather than on their own computers] specifically to avoid violating their copyrights.”