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Napster redux: Another online media-swapper gets sued by the entertainment industry, even as it is taking meetings with Hollywood giants.

Topics: Copyright, Intellectual Property,

Do you think Elvis is all shook up that people are listening to his music online and BMG Music isn’t making even more money off a man who’s been dead since 1977? Well, the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) sure are.

On Thursday, the two powerful entertainment industry lobbying groups, plus the National Music Publishers Association, jointly filed a lawsuit against the multimedia search engine Scour, contending that the company is “built around the large-scale theft of copyrighted material and trafficking of stolen works.” The suit cites the use of Scour to illegally trade digital versions of movies like “The Perfect Storm,” “The Patriot” and “Mission: Impossible 2,” and popular music, including such oldies as “Zip A Dee Do Dah,” the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and quite a few Elvis numbers.

Like Napster, which faces similar charges in an RIAA suit, Scour provides technology that helps people find and share multimedia files online. But where once sharing such files was an underground pastime, now you need a scorecard to keep track of who is suing who. And despite the increasing hostilities, Scour, like Napster, is also becoming extremely popular. According to the complaint filed in a New York district court, “from April 2000 (when Scour launched its [Scour Exchange] service) to May 2000 (the most recent month for which statistics are available), the number of unique visitors to the Scour.com Web site nearly doubled — from 242,000 per month to 443,000 per month.”

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In other words, Scour is yet another confirmation that huge numbers of people are using the Net to access the entertainment industry’s products. You’d think Hollywood types would be euphoric: “Phew, this new medium isn’t going to run over us, it loves us!” And guess what — even as the MPAA and RIAA insist on playing a futile game of legal whack-a-mole with every new company that beats the industry to the punch, there are signs that some entertainment execs are beginning to see the light.

How else to explain this response to the lawsuit from Scour president Dan Rodrigues: “We’re very surprised about this morning’s MPAA and RIAA lawsuit, given our productive conversations just this week with Sony, Warner and BMG regarding establishing business relationships with these companies. We also have a previously scheduled meeting with Universal. Adding to the confusion caused by this action, Scour already has licensed content agreements from Miramax and Hollywood Records, both of whom are plaintiffs in this lawsuit.”

Oh to be a fly on the wall when that Scour-Universal meeting takes place! Will Rodrigues have the gumption to ask the studio execs for an explanation of the MPAA’s assertion that “what [Scour is] doing is no different than if they provided people with a way to shoplift CDs and videotapes from stores”?

Will the lawsuit turn out to be a fluke? It seems pretty unlikely, given that between them the MPAA and the RIAA have filed six lawsuits against folks trying to advance digital entertainment distribution, including cases against Napster, DeCSS, MP3.com, iCraveTV, RecordTV.com and now Scour. But if the Universal guys are still interested in working out a deal with Scour, they might consider making up the little faux pas with a special rendition of “Don’t Be Cruel” — and a one-time payment to BMG, of course.

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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