Monday, March 28, 2005

File Sharing On Trial, Supremely

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2005 at 8:33 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments Tuesday on what may be the most significant intellectual property copyright case in decades. At the heart of it: sharing music on the Internet. More than two dozen entertainment companies sued the makers of three peer-to-peer file sharing software applications (Morpheus, Grokster, and KaZaA) seeking to stop copyright infringement. A good overview of the case can be found here (at the most excellent SCOTUSblog).

This case is not primarily about whether file sharing itself is good or bad, legal or illegal, but about whether those who create file-sharing software are responsible when people use their software in ways that violate copyrights. In legalese, the question before the Supreme Court is this (rephrasing by SCOTUSblog):

Whether the Internet-based "file sharing" services Grokster and StreamCast are contributorily or vicariously liable for the massive copyright infringement that constitutes roughly 90% of the total use of their services.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which represents one of the firms sued in this case (the makers of Morpheus), translates:

When should the distributor of a multi-purpose tool be held liable for the infringements that may be committed by end-users of the tool?

For the P2P software firms, the key precedent is the famous 1984 Sony Betamax case, in which the film industry argued (unsuccessfully) that VCRs, by allowing people to store and copy movies, would bring down the industry. As MPAA president Jack Valenti (in)famously said in 1982 at a Congressional hearing, "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." The P2P firms won in the Ninth Circuit, which said they cannot be held liable for copyright violations of software users.

EFF has an amazingly thorough set of links on the current case -- briefs by the litigating parties, dozens of amicus briefs, motions, media releases, and transcripts and streaming audio of lower court proceedings.


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