What was the Napster case about and what does it mean?

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Napster Copyright Law Intellectual Property

What was the Napster case about and what does it mean?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed and upheld the Northern District Court of California ruling on the injunction which shut down Napster.


In order to get an injunction, a party must show that he is likely to succeed on the merits of the case and that the damages are of great enough magnitude and difficulty to determine to justify stopping the action immediately instead of granting the injured party damages after a later court decision.

Direct Infringement

Direct copyright infringement is copying of a work owned by another. To show infringement, a party must prove she owned copyright to the work, that the infringer had access to the work and that it was copied.

The Ninth Circuit held that the District was not in error in holding that Napster users were likely engaged in direct copyright infringement of the works cataloged by Napster and that Napster was unlikely to succeed in establishing that Napsters’ users had a “fair use” defense. In other words, Napster users were likely guilty of copyright infringement and without a valid defense.

Contributory Infringement

Contributory infringement is when one party helps another to infringe a copyright. To prove contributory infringement, a party must show that the infringer knew or had reason to know of the direct infringement, provided a material contribution to the infringement and that the direct infringement existed.

The Ninth Circuit held that if a computer system operator learns of infringement and fails to purge the infringing materials from its system, it is liable for contributory infringement. The court also held that a computer system operator cannot be held liable merely because its system may be used for infringement. Finally, the court held that in Napster’s case, Napster was likely to be guilkty of contributory infringement since the facts showed that Napster had knowledge of the infringing activity and its system contributed to the infringing activity.

Vicarious Infringement

Vicarious infringement is when one party supervises or controls another party who engages in infringing activity and the supervising party has a direct financial interest in such activities.

The court held that Napster had a financial interest in the infringing activities, had the ability to block user’s use of its system which was proof of its ability to supervise or control users, and its failure to police its system gave rise to vicarioius liability.


The Napster case is only one case in one circuit. The ruling applies in that jurisdiction. However, it also works in conjunction with copyright law and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act which also address these issues.

These are not matters to be handled on your own. As you can see from this brief summary, you want to consult an attorney to really understand your risks — there are a considerable number of legal and factual matters to balance and understand, and it’s complex — even for the best of attorneys as Napsters’ attorneys certainly showed in their loss.

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