A Supreme Court ruling against peer-to-peer network Grokster would do
more than punish music pirates. It would affect the future of the
By Andrew Leonard
March 30, 2005 | I decided to rip my vinyl in honor of MGM vs.
Grokster, the case heard before the Supreme Court on Tuesday that will
likely result in a landmark ruling on copyright law.
"To rip one's vinyl" means to convert long-playing records to digital
files. And if some doomsayers are correct, it's the kind of thing the
music biz would be able to prevent me from doing if the Grokster
decision goes their way. In a worst-case scenario, anything that would
allow me to copy music, whether it's a CD-burner, some audio-editing
software, or a peer-to-peer network like Grokster, would be illegal.
But to be honest, stopping me from taking moldering P-Funk, Rolling
Stones and R.E.M. albums and transforming them into MP3s for my own
enjoyment is not the highest priority for the entertainment industry.
In the Grokster case, a roll-call of music and movie studios are
targeting their sights on file-sharing peer-to-peer networks. Their
argument is that the creators of those networks should be deemed
responsible for what people do with them -- technically, that means
they should be found guilty of "secondary liability" for the copyright
infringement committed by file sharers.
The case before the Supreme Court does not pertain to whether the
actual act of file sharing is illegal. Let's accept for now that when
you or I grab a copy of the newest Aimee Mann track from Kazaa or
LimeWire, we are committing intellectual-property piracy, stealing
royalties from starving artists, and threatening the entire economic
basis of the music industry. Personally, I enjoy supporting the
artists I like by purchasing their records on iTunes, and I especially
savor doing so after I have heard a free sample of their music over
the Net. But that's an entirely separate issue from what's at stake in
this case. MGM vs. Grokster deals with whether the creators of a
technology are responsible for how it used. It's not an understatement
to say that the case could influence the future of the Internet.
This is why the "secondary liability" charge makes a lot of folks,
particularly those in the computer, consumer electronics and telecom
industries, very nervous. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs would
represent a reversal of the precedent set 20 years ago in the famous
"Sony-Betamax" case, which held that Sony was not liable for any
copyright abuses likely to be perpetrated by owners of VCRs because
there were "substantial noninfringing" uses of the product. In other
words, because the VCR could be used for perfectly legitimate
purposes, like watching a rented movie, it was OK for Sony to sell it,
even if some people were going to use it to tape copyrighted
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