Back in 2003, we were surprised to see Universal Music decide to sue rival Bertelsmann over its investment in Napster. Bertelsmann had been the only major label to buck the RIAA-backed trend of declaring the original Napster as evil, and had actually invested in the company, hoping to make it a platform for legitimate music distribution. While the RIAA took down Napster itself, the lawsuit against Bertelsmann should have made many venture capitalists and other investors pay attention. Essentially, Universal was trying to put liability for what a company did on the shoulders of the investors in that company. If that kind of precedent was set, it would add so much liability to an investment that it would slow down the flow of capital. A year and a half ago, the two companies settled part of the lawsuit, but part of it remained. Yesterday, Universal announced that it was likely buying Bertelsmann's BMG music division -- and, apparently recognizing how awkward it would be to have a lawsuit going on against itself, settled the remaining portion of the lawsuit. Bertelsmann isn't admitting any liability, but is paying Universal $60 million to end the lawsuit. While it doesn't set any kind of legal precedent, it could get more people thinking about targeting lawsuits at investors in a company that has legal issues, using the same argument that it was the investors money that "enabled" the wrongdoing. While it's no surprise that Bertelsmann settled the suit (the executives who made the Napster deal are now long gone), it's worrisome in what such a settlement represents, and how it may encourage other, similar suits.
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