Computers: Compuserve left to face the music: The leading network service provider is facing legal action from a US publisher. Lynne Curry reports

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The Independent Online
I feel sorry for CompuServe,' says Bob Hay, a former chief superintendent with the Metropolitan Police who now spends his time trying to unravel the intangible crime of software theft. As chief executive of the Federation Against Software Theft, he was invited by Compuserve, the information network, to check out its processes and pronounced them scrupulous. Unfortunately for the network, other organisations do not share his view.

A US music publisher has decided to go for the jugular. The Frank Music Corporation is alleging 550 breaches of musical copyright over 'Midi' digital music recordings. Lawyers for the two sides are still slugging it out - is Compuserve the right defendant; can digitised music with no vocals really be considered a breach of copyright? - but the case seems likely to come to court.

This may seem a remote episode to Compuserve's 30,000 UK subscribers, who pay their pounds 6.20 a month to call up and download everything from weather forecasts (free) to the gift catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. But it could have long and loud repercussions.

First, it could mark the first step of a considered onslaught from publishers who see their grip on copyright slipping away. Second, it could lead to a reduction in the number of 'forums' that exist - currently more than 600.

Those who log on to the various networks are not shy to admit the ease of obtaining copyright materia. Film clips and sound effects are often mentioned; as long as no one is making money out of them, the copyright owners have been content to turn a blind eye or accept the near impossibility of policing the patch. But Frank Music, in an action backed by the US National Music Publishers Association, has decided to target Compuserve over the dollars 50,000 ( pounds 33,000) the organisation made last year on downloading music.

'We have over 2,000 services and activities and downloading music is 5 to 10 per cent of the activity on one of these services,' Kent Stucky, Compuserve's general counsel says.

Compuserve is challenging the assumption that as the distributor, it is liable. 'We are the only defendant; they allege we're conducting all the activities when really it's people in their homes playing on a computer keyboard. The plaintiff has said they won't chase people all over the place; they came after what they consider to be the top pocket.'

Martin Turner, Compuserve's UK-based product marketing manager, says no organisation does more to make sure it stays within the copyright rules. 'In our terms and conditions to our customers we make it very explicit that information that is copyright should only be used for personal use. In many cases, we actually repeat that as the material is downloaded.' There are 320,000 files or services subscribers can download, he says, but the ultimate responsibility for what is pasted up should rest with the customer.

Compuserve is 'policed' by the 'sysops' - systems operators - who take charge of particular forums and bulletin boards. All the information sent for distribution goes into a sanitised area, where the sysops check it for possible copyright infringement, obscenity and viruses.

Rupert Goodwins, the technical editor of PC magazine, who runs the magazine's forum and a couple on other networks as a hobby, says: 'It looks as if a lot of people who are running on-line services because they like doing it will have to stop. There is talk of setting up a union of sysops so that we can obtain liability insurance. The potential liability is huge.'

Bob Hay, of the Federation Against Software Theft, says that Compuserve is 'scrupulous and a model for bulletin boards', in contrast to illegal bulletin boards which ride roughshod over all sorts of laws, of which copyright is probably the least worrying. There are known paedophile and pornography boards and recipes for making hard drugs. One lists credit card numbers, along with the names of the holders and expiry dates.

It seems ironic to Compuserve that it should be the subject of one of the few legal actions over bulletin boards. It irritates Kent Stucky that while the besuited denizens of Compuserve are doing their best to avoid abuses, they have been landed in the mire by home computer enthusiasts sitting up in their pyjamas.

Bulletin board: a computer system that acts as an information and message-passing centre for users to access over a telephone line linked by a modem to their own computer.

Download: To load a data file or program into a computer system from a computer network.

Forum: Electronic systems divide up information and discussions into forums or conferences each covering a separate topic or subject area.

Midi: Musical Instrument Digital Interface - the industry standard remote control and data exchange system used to allow electronic instruments such as keyboards, and synthesisers to be linked to computers.

Network: A number of computer systems linked together over communications lines.

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