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A&M Records, Inc., et al. v. Napster, Inc.

No. C 99-05183 MHP (N.D. Cal. 2000)

The court denied Napster Inc.'s ("Napster") motion for partial summary judgment, in which motion Napster sought to limit the damages and other relief that could be awarded against it for alleged direct or contributory copyright infringement by application of the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA").

Napster makes available for free on its web site its MusicShare software. A user who wishes to use Napster's service downloads this software onto his/her personal computer. The user may then seek to access the Napster system. Once the user logs on, the MusicShare software reads a list of MP3 files the user has elected to make available to other users then on Napster's system, and communicates that list to Napster's servers. These servers, in turn, add this list to a transient directory of MP3 files that users currently logged on to the Napster system are willing to share. Once the user logs off, the list of files he/she is willing to share is deleted from this directory.

If the user wants to locate a particular MP3 file, the user enters the name of the song or band on the search page in the MusicShare program resident on his/her personal computer. This software then searches the current directory on Napster's servers, and generates a list of files responsive to the request. To download one of these files, the user selects that file from the list. The Napster server then communicates this request to the computer on which the file is stored, which request is read by the MusicShare software found on that computer. The host computer responds that it either can or cannot supply the file. If the host computer can supply the file, Napster's server communicates the host computer's IP address and routing information to the requesting user's MusicShare software, which then makes a connection directly with the host computer, and downloads the file over the Internet.

The Napster system has other functions besides those outlined above. By way of example, the MusicShare software can be used to play an MP3 file. Napster also hosts a chat room on its web site.

Napster moved for partial summary judgment, claiming that DMCA section 512(a) (17 U.S.C. 512(a)) limited the relief that could be awarded against it. Among other things, Section 512(a) exempts qualifying service providers from monetary liability for direct, vicarious and contributory infringement, and limits the injunctive relief that may be issued by the court.

Section 512(a) limits a service provider's liability for copyright infringement 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 ...".

The court held that Napster's role in the transmission of MP3 files by and among the various users of its system was not entitled to protection under Section 512(a) because such transmission does not occur through Napster's system. Rather, all files transfer directly from the computer of one Napster user through the Internet to the computer of the requesting user. Similarly, any role that Napster plays in providing a connection between these two computers does not occur through its system. Said the court:

Although the Napster server conveys address information to establish a connection between the requesting and host users, the connection itself occurs through the Internet. The legislative history of section 512 demonstrates that Congress intended the 512(a) safe harbor to apply only to activities "in which a service provider plays the role of a 'conduit' for the communications of others." ... Napster enables or facilitates the initiation of connections, but these connections do not pass through the system within the meaning of subsection 512(a).

The court also held that issues of fact existed as to whether Napster was entitled to any protection under the DMCA at all. To be entitled to such protection, a service provider must meet the requirements of section 512(i) of the DMCA, which, among other things, obligates the service provider to "adopt[] and reasonably implement[] and inform[] subscirbers and account holders of the service provider's system or network of a policy that provides for the termination in appropriate circumstances of subscribers and account holders of the service provider's system or network who are repeat infringers ...". The court held that issues of fact existed as to whether Napster had appropriately adopted and informed its users of such an effective policy which precluded at this time any relief to Napster under the DMCA.

Noting DMCA section 512(n), the court held that each independent function of the Napster system must be judged independently against the various safe harbors afforded by the DMCA. The fact that one function is not afforded protection under a particular safe harbor provision does not mean that another function provided by the service provider is not entitled to protection under another safe harbor provision. Conversely, the fact that a service provider is entitled to protection under a safe harbor provision for providing or performing for its users a particular function does not entitle the service provider to "blanket protection" for all activities.

The court also held that "some of the ... essential functions [of the Napster system] -- including but not limited to the search engine and index -- should be analyzed under subsection 512(d)" and the safe harbor provisions found therein.

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