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As technology has advanced to make it easier not only to make copies of copyrighted works, but also to share them with others, more stringent legal measures have been taken against those who commit copyright infringement. While some types of infringement are obvious - such as mass distribution of pirated DVDs - other types may not be. For example, making a copy of a CD you purchased and giving it to a friend as a gift is a form of copyright infringement.


Within the last decade some of the biggest legal challenges for copyright infringement have been against on-line file sharing services. When music became available in a MP3 format, it became easier than ever before for individuals to load their music on to their computers and share it with others. Napster was one of the first file-sharing services. It operated by creating a peer-to-peer network. Users would download Napster's free MusicShare software, which would then allow them to connect to a central server operated by Napster where they could share all of the music on their hard drives with other users, search for music on other users' hard drives and download copies of them.

Record companies filed a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement against the company in 2000. Napster argued its users were engaging in fair use - a permissible use of copyrighted materials without gaining permission from the owner or holder of the copyright. The court, however, rejected this argument and found that Napster had knowingly encouraged and assisted copyright infringement. With the ruling, Napster was forced to close operations.


After Napster, peer-to-peer networks did not disappear. Rather, more services sprung up, including Grokster. Unlike Napster, Grokster's service did not include a central server to connect users. Rather, Grokster distributed free software to its users that allowed them to connect directly with one another to share music files. The company wrongly believed the operation of its service was different enough from Napster to protect it from legal challenge.

The record industry brought suit against Grokster in 2003. The lower courts found in favor of Grokster, noting that the company did not provide a centralized system for users and thus did not have actual knowledge of copyright infringement nor an ability to control or monitor its users. The recording industry filed and received certiorari from the US Supreme Court, which overturned the lower court's decision in 2005. According to the US Supreme Court, Grokster's primary purpose was to facilitate the transfer of copyright protected music files between its users. After the Supreme Court decision, Grokster agreed to a permanent injunction and ceased all business operations.

Individual Lawsuits

After the Napster and Grokster decisions, file-sharing services did not go out of existence. People continue to share and download copyrighted music, movies, books and computer software in violation of US copyright laws. In an effort to stop the copyright infringement, the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) began bringing lawsuits against individual infringers. At first, the RIAA mainly focused on college campuses and student infringers, but the RIAA has widened its scope to include others. The RIAA is willing to grant amnesty to those who have participated in illegal file-sharing if they remove all of the infringing material from their computers, agree not to commit future copyright violations and certify they have not been sued for copyright infringement in the past or engaged in the practice for a commercial purpose.

Internet Service Providers

In pursuing lawsuits against individual infringers, the RIAA wanted to force internet service providers (ISPs) to turn over the names of its subscribers who were illegally sharing and downloading copyrighted materials. However, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled against the RIAA in its lawsuit against Verizon and found that the organization could not force ISPs to provide this information. In response, the RIAA has begun filing cases against John and Jane Does, and then requesting a court order to require the ISPs to provide the names of the alleged infringers.

The only safe file-sharing services for individuals to use are those that have gained permission from copyright owners for their music to appear on the site. Many of these sites are pay sites, but not all of them charge a fee. Two of the most popular file-sharing sites are iTunes and Rhapsody. The RIAA Web site contains a list of other legal sites at http://www.riaa.org.

For more information on US copyright laws, contact an experienced intellectual property attorney in your area today.

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