NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The file-sharing software known as Morpheus sure looks like Napster, but Steve Griffin, CEO of its manufacturer, StreamCast Networks, believes he can avoid Napster's fate. "I'm frankly a little tired of the 'pirate' moniker that is sent our way," he says.
Twenty-nine entertainment companies think the moniker fits. All are parties to a copyright infringement suit against the company, alleging that Morpheus helps people swap copyrighted songs and video clips on the Internet.
Nashville's StreamCast doesn't deny the charge but claims that it's not to blame. While Napster ran a directory of the files available on its network -- making it difficult to deny that its proprietors knew what was going on -- Morpheus merely helps users connect to one another. Its servers "have no knowledge of particular files being transferred," the company said in recent legal filings. StreamCast, in other words, believes that it's no more guilty of copyright violations than Microsoft (MSFT: up $0.56 to $55.35, Research, Estimates) is for crimes people commit while surfing on Internet Explorer.
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What the courts must decide is whether Morpheus's "substantial noninfringing uses" -- that is, all the legal kinds of file sharing it makes possible -- outweigh the copyright violations that take place on it. It'll be a tough argument, says Lon Sobel, a professor of law at the University of California at San Diego and the editor of the Entertainment Law Reporter, because most people aren't using Morpheus to distribute songs or movies of their own creation.
A Hollywood victory wouldn't be the end of the story. Morpheus can lose -- but it can't be stopped. That's because it has no central server and millions of Morpheus downloads are already in circulation. "StreamCast could disappear from the face of the earth," Sobel says. "But all of the children it gave birth to are leading independent lives of their own."
Ian Mount (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior writer at Business 2.0.
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