June 3, 2005 | By Donna Wentworth

Offering != Distribution

Judge Marilyn Patel issued a ruling (PDF) Wednesday that settles an important question in the ongoing Napster (yes, Napster) case -- whether under the law, simply offering copyrighted material to others (say, by listing it in an index) means you're distributing it.

The record label lawyers, as Ernie Miller so delicately puts it, "were bloody idiots because they didn't nail down evidence of direct infringement before launching the Napster lawsuit." They have therefore been working hard at making the Artists' Rights and Theft Prevention Act of 2005 (ART Act) work for them, hoping Judge Patel would adopt a new, broader standard for the right of distribution based on one of its provisions. If Judge Patel found Napster liable for direct infringement on the theory of making-available-as-distributing, the labels could press forward against Napster's investors on that basis. No such luck.

Rather than requiring proof of the actual dissemination of a copyrighted work or an offer to distribute that work for the purpose of its further distribution or public performance, plaintiffs' theory is premised on the assumption that any offer to distribute a copyrighted work violates section 106(3). This is not sufficient to satisfy plaintiffs' burden of proving that Napster or its users directly infringed their copyrighted musical compositions and sound recordings, as they must do if they are to hold defendants secondarily liable for that infringement. Accordingly, the court holds that defendants are entitled to summary judgment on this issue.

In other words, copyright holders have to prove that someone actually downloaded the file from you before you can be found liable for distributing. The simple act of offering isn't enough.

Accordingly, the court holds that defendants are entitled to summary judgment on this issue.

In the context of the case, this is a minor victory -- Judge Patel did not dismiss the other theories for direct infringement, so the case will continue against Napster's investors on those grounds. But it does clarify the law, providing a safeguard against the over-reach that the ART Act threatened.

For a much more detailed look at the ruling, check out Ernie Miller's post, Judge Patel Dismisses One Direct Infringement Theory, But Napster Investment Case Continues.

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