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Song-Swapping Napster Finds Itself in Own Copyright Spat

Online: Firm tries to fix P.R. blunder after demanding that band Offspring stop selling items with the start-up's logo.

June 06, 2000|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Napster Inc., whose controversial song-swapping software has created an uproar over copyright issues, scrambled Monday to fix a legal snafu that outraged both music pirates and the recording industry alike.

On Friday, the San Mateo, Calif.-based company e-mailed a cease-and-desist letter to Orange County punk rock act the Offspring, which had been hawking on its Web site $10 T-shirts and caps and $1 bumper stickers imprinted with the Napster logo.

The band, which has been a vocal supporter of Napster, said it was trying to support--in a tongue-in-cheek manner--the file-sharing program.

So Napster supporters, artists and music executives were shocked by the demand, and saw it as a petty and hypocritical move by a company that claims to champion open access over intellectual property.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 7, 2000 Home Edition Business Part C Page 3 Financial Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Napster CEO--A story in Tuesday's Business section misspelled the name of Hank Barry, a partner at San Francisco-based Hummer Winblad Venture Partners and interim chief executive of Napster Inc.

Napster officials rushed to distance themselves from the letter early Monday, saying that the e-mail sent to Nitro Records in Huntington Beach late Friday was not cleared by either Napster founder Shawn Fanning or the company's interim chief executive, Hank Berry.

Berry apologized to band officials over the weekend and said the Napster employee who sent the e-mail has been reprimanded, an industry insider said.

Napster and Offspring officials declined to comment Monday.

But the public-relations blunder spotlights the difficult line Napster must straddle between carving out a new-media business model and adhering to traditional laws over protecting rights in a virtual marketplace.

"I thought it was a hoax," said attorney Howard King, who represents heavy-metal act Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre, both of whom have filed copyright infringement suits against Napster. "I guess Napster really does understand the importance of a person or a company protecting their own intellectual property."

The start-up developed a program to make trading music files simple. The software, available free on the Napster Web site, enables users to share songs they have, copy songs they want and search a gigantic database of music that often is being distributed illegally.

Artists themselves are divided over the company's technology, as well as the music industry's ongoing war against online piracy and its pending litigation against the start-up.

Some Napster fans have even used the Web to post scathing parodies of artists who have sided against the software company. One short animation film, currently available online, depicts Metallica lead singer James Hetfield as a hulking Neanderthal, grunting out phrases like, "T-shirts, good! Napster, bad!"

Despite Napster's mea culpa, the Internet community's reaction remained negative--a troubling situation for a company that relies solely on the goodwill of its more than 10 million members.

On Napster's own message boards and in its chat rooms, many subscribers condemned the company for its action. They noted that Offspring singer Bryan "Dexter" Holland uses Napster.

One subscriber who uses the online handle "Bogey" thought that Napster officials should get "a sense of humor."

Holland, at least, was amused by the brouhaha. The singer, drawing a reference from the Metallica animation parody, issued a single statement Monday: "T-shirts . . . good."

Napster and the Offspring said Monday that they will work together to sell a complete line of Napster products via the band's Web site.

Sales revenues will be donated to a charity of Holland and Fanning's choosing, officials said.

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