Woulda Coulda Shoulda
Brian Dipert - April 15, 2005
Late last month, the US Supreme Court heard the case of MGM versus Grokster, a dispute over the legality of peer-to-peer file sharing software whose outcome has the potential to be as pivotal to defining the legality of future technology innovations as was the Betamax case, or the follow-on legal decision asserting the legality of Rio's PMP300 MP3 player. You'll note I said future technology; P2P is so entrenched today, and as with BitTorrent (and unlike with the original Napster) so difficult to monitor and disable, that Pandora's Box is already open, never to be shut again. The Supreme Court's decision is expected later this summer.
Sometimes I feel the need to uncork an elaborate explanation of my stance on a technology issue. And sometimes I can just point you at what someone else has written, and simply say 'me too'. This is one of those latter times. Mark Gibbs, a writer whose discourse I regularly follow and very much enjoy, handles two sections (GearHead and BackSpin) in the weekly publication NetworkWorld. His BackSpin column in the April 4 issue, entitled "Grokster: If the suit doesn't fit", is excellent and I highly recommend you peruse it. I'll whet your appetite with one quote:
"A crucial issue is whether Grokster intended to enable piracy. Unless they can find concrete proof of that goal, any suppositions about Grokster's aims are not relevant. So far, that proof is absent, but this is law, not logic."
Modern peer-to-peer file sharing software such as BitTorrent represents an incredible innovation in efficiently utilizing LAN and WAN bandwidth. Yes, it's used to illegally swap MP3s and DivX-encoded DVD extracts. But increasingly it's also being used to legally and cost- and time-effectively distribute content of all types. Just ask Etree, the Internet Archive, Linspire (see the link inside Michael Robertson's column for a free copy of LinspireLive! v5), the Linux Mirror Project, NASA, the US Army or even (shock!) Hollywood. For the US courts to make a sweeping disavowal of a technology just because it could find illegal use is not only incredibly short-sighted (and ultimately fruitless both in light of existing P2P software penetration in US homes and of the global nature of the Internet), it will also have a chilling effect on future technology innovation. I confess I don't normally side with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, but for at least once I do agree with him, as another quote from Gibbs' column portrays:
"Justice Antonin Scalia said that, should the entertainment companies prevail, a consequence would be a dampening effect on technology because if "I'm a new inventor, I'm going to get sued right away"."
Am I being visionary, naive, pragmatic or a little of each? Click on that Comments link and unload your thoughts; your fellow readers and I look forward to your perspective.
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