The Future of File-Sharing Debated

On March 29, 2005, the Supreme Court of the U.S. will hear the case of MGM V. Grokster and StreamCast Networks, the makers of the P2P applications Grokster and Morpheus.
Napster offered free file sharing to millions of users until it was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America which represented record labels, music publishers and artists.
The case was dropped after Bertelsmann AG offered to team up with Napster and offer subscription-based music downloads, so that musicians would be paid for the music they made.
However, the issue of file-sharing was never completely settled, making way for various other court cases brought against other file-sharing programs. As computer technology becomes more complex, legal cases attempt to set precedent for future programs.
While most people have largely ignored every Internet piracy suit since the original Napster, this case could have much greater implications than simply the ability to offer file-sharing programs to Internet users.
Last year when the 9th Circuit Court found Grokster and Streamcast not liable for the piracy of their users, MGM and their allies decided to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, having exhausted all other legal means of fighting StreamCast Networks.
While the outcome of the case obviously affects the users of Grokster or Morpheus, the consequences of the case could be far-reaching if the makers of P2P applications are deemed liable.
Under current precedent from the landmark 1984 Supreme Court ‘Betamax decision’ (Sony v. Universal Studios), makers of a tool that can be used to pirate copyrighted material cannot be held liable provided that their tool is capable of noninfringing uses.
Thanks to the Betamax decision, the manufacturers of VCRs, DVRs like Tivo, the iPod, or other multipurpose tools capable of reproducing copyrighted work cannot be sued.
In 1998, the RIAA attempted to stop the Diamond Rio, the first portable MP3 player, from being sold and the Betamax case was used as the precedent to defeat the ludicrous lawsuit.
If the RIAA had its way, everyone walking around UCI with iPods would be criminals!
While it may seem disturbing, MGM and its allies want the Betamax case overturned.
Not surprisingly, the list of organizations opposing MGM come from a broad political spectrum.
The American Conservative Union and the National Taxpayers Union have both submitted amicus briefs for StreamCast, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.
When the ACLU and two conservative groups agree upon something, one has to think that opposing MGM is bipartisan.
Even some musical artists oppose MGM’s position, even though they oppose piracy.
One artist group, with members including Steve Winwood, Chuck D and Heart, have filed an amicus briefing in favor of Streamcast.
As the group notes, ‘Musicians are not universally united in opposition to peer-to-peer file sharing as the major record companies claim.’
The briefing by the musician group notes that ‘many musicians find peer-to-peer technology … allows them to easily reach a worldwide online audience,’ and that for ‘many musicians, the benefits of this … strongly outweigh the risks of copyright infringement.’
Despite this position being supported by a minimum of the over 20 different musical artists who were willing to put their name on the briefing, there is no mention of the division among musical artists ever mentioned by the RIAA.
In their mythical world there is no dissention among musical artists on this issue.
In addition, technology companies across the the industry have pointed out the crippling effect that overturning the Betamax case would have upon their business.
While some effects are obvious such as competing P2P networks, many aren’t so controversial.
Intel, the leading maker of microprocessors for personal computers, added that personal computers themselves could have been threatened without the Betamax decision.
As Intel’s briefing notes, ‘Even the personal computer might not have developed.’ Along with Intel, numerous other technology companies have contributed to Streamcast’s case, including SBC, Verizon, Sun Microsystems, MCI and AT&T.
If we are to look at the economic arguments for overturning Betamax one must look at the billions of dollars in losses in the multibillion-dollar technology sector that would result if this pivotal court decision overturned, a possible consequence that the content companies never mention.
One of the leading defenders of P2P networks and the Electronic Freedom Frontier asks, ‘When should the distributor of a multipurpose tool be held liable for the infringements that may be committed by end-users of the tool?’
Any set amount that a network must have to be legal, is wholly arbitrary.
While much of the content traded on P2P networks is illegal, much of the content is legal. For example, many Linux distributions rely upon the P2P application Bittorrent for Internet distribution.
As Fred von Lohmann, EFF’s senior intellectual property attorney, commented, ‘The copyright-law principles set out in the Sony Betamax case have served innovators, copyright industries and the public well for 20 years.’ Hopefully, Lohmann, who is the legal counsel for Streamcast Networks, will succeed in this case.

Shawn Augsburger is a fifth-year history major. You can reach him at augsburs@uci.edu.