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What Monday's Napster decision means

A California federal court upholds the recording industry’s view

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Napster’s legal woes have become about as hard to understand as Eddie Vedder’s lyrics. But Monday’s ruling by a federal court in California essentially confirmed the recording industry’s claims and everyone else’s worst fears: that Napster’s more than 50 million users are breaking the law by trading songs on the service.

Access to the insurgent song swapping outpost won’t immediately be denied, but the ruling essentially upholds a lower court’s injunction that would have shut down Napster last October. The Recording Industry Association of American declared it ”a clear victory,” and went on to say that it was ”time for Napster to stand down and build their business the old fashioned way. By seeking permission first.”

This is exactly what Napster has been trying to do lately; the company, which recently partnered with music industry giant Bertelsmann, is preparing to launch a legitimate, for pay version of its service sometime this summer. But Napster CEO Hank Barry says, ”Under this decision, Napster could be shut down” even before then.

The mere prospect of going cold turkey has sent MP3 addicts rushing to their computers to fill out hard drive record collections. Traffic on Napster surged on Friday when users first learned of the impending ruling. And subscribers to the Usenet newsgroup alt.peer-to-peer.napster are already talking up a boycott — as well as reeling off the names of Napster like services they’ll use if their mainstay disappears. ”These attempts to try to put the genie back in the bottle are almost like trying to drink water with a fork,” says rapper Chuck D.

But for every forward thinking rapper who believes the recording industry is alienating fans and jilting performers, there are bands like Metallica who say Napster is curtailing their artistic freedom. ”All we have ever asked is that artists be able to control how, when, and in what form their creativity is distributed through these channels,” the group said in a statement. ”This is something that Napster has continually refused to do. Now the court has made that decision for them.” At least for now — Napster’s attorneys have already said they plan to appeal today’s ruling.

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