No matter how much money popular musicians rake in, they'll usually say they're doing it all for the fans.

That is, as long as the fans keep bringing the cash.

Witness the pair of lawsuits filed recently against college students who download music for free on the Internet. Rapper Dr. Dre and heavy metal rockers Metallica are heading to court in hopes of forcing their freeloading fans to log off and pay up.

The main target of both lawsuits is Napster, a piece of software that makes it easy for Net users to share songs stored as MP3 files. While music fans of all ages have flocked to the program, it's particularly popular among college students with fast Net connections, thin wallets and plenty of spare time to download music.

The Recording Industry Association of America has filed its own lawsuit against Napster, calling it an illegal tool for distributing pirated copies of popular music. Metallica and Dr. Dre have taken their cases a step further by suing unidentified students who've downloaded their songs and schools that don't block Napster from their networks.

Believe it or not, the case against the students is stronger than the one against the software company itself. But those claims will prove to be more trouble than they're worth, particularly if Napster manages to survive its own day in court.

Don't blame the software

Napster stands accused of violating the copyright of every song traded through its service. Because the company's software makes it easy to track down MP3 files made by other users, the entire Internet could conceivably listen to the latest Metallica release if just one Napster user pays for the CD and copies it onto his hard drive.

But Napster doesn't store any songs on its servers or keep track of what people listen to. Its Web site also warns users not to trade unauthorized copies of songs, though that's about as effective as warning condom buyers not to have sex.

Still, it's possible for people to use Napster without violating anyone's copyright. That being the case, I'm not sure the company can be held accountable for unlawful uses of its perfectly legitimate software.

After all, you can't sue Xerox if someone uses one of their copiers to violate a publisher's copyright by running off a copy of an entire book. And the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the sale of VCRs despite complaints from Hollywood that they would be used to make unauthorized copies of movies.

Napster is seeking refuge in a clause of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act that offers Internet service providers immunity for copyright violations carried out on their networks. It's a stretch, but both Napster and ISPs provide people with a means for breaking the law without encouraging them to do so.

From fans to defendants

While Napster might not be responsible for copyright violations, its users surely are. People who download songs from the Net and play them without the artists' or record labels' permission are breaking the law just like jaywalkers.

The problem is trying to do anything about it. It's probably possible to track down individual Napster users by serving subpoenas on their ISPs. But the process would cost the recording industry far more than the profits lost to any single fan of online music.

Targeting universities has been more productive. Metallica's lawsuit has convinced three schools to restrict Napster-related traffic on their networks. The threat of being added to that suit or named in Dr. Dre's litigation might convince other universities to take similar steps.

But if any college-educated people are actually listening to the drivel Dr. Dre and Metallica put out, they won't be scared away from Napster by these ridiculous lawsuits. The only change they'll make is to make sure they never pay another penny to support those artists.

The recording industry is obliged to try to take down Napster, even though similar services have already sprung up to take its place if it's shut down. But I can't see how making music fans into defendants is going to help anyone sell music.

Dr. Dre, who may not even be a real doctor, huffed indignantly in a press release announcing his lawsuit that "I don't like people stealing my music."

Don't worry, Doc. If you and Metallica are dumb enough to treat your fans like common criminals, it won't be long before you can't even give your music away.

To contact Joe Salkowski, e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.

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