MGM vs Grokster case moves to the Supreme Court

Legal battle over p2p networks' responsibility for illegal file sharing reaches its final stage

Steve Malone
30 Mar 2005

The two sides in the bitter dispute over whether peer to peer networking is responsible for illegal file sharing final met at the Supreme Court today. The long running battle between MGM, which represents the movie business, and Grokster and StreamCast Networks, for the p2p companies, seeks to settle once and for all whether peer to peer technology encourages illegal activity.

So far the battle has been a 2-0 victory for the file sharers. Both the circuit court and the appeals court found in favour of the p2p networks. Their judgements were based on an original 1984 ruling where Sony was cleared of promoting copyright infringement because some people used its video cassette recorders to duplicate copyright material. Ironically, Sony as one of the world's largest music labels is now on the side of the copyright owners.

Early indications are that the Supreme Court is likely to go along with its 1984 decision. A ban on any device which could theoretically be used to infringe copyright would include a long line of technological innovations including VCRs, audio cassettes, iPods, fax machines and photocopiers. Justice Stephen G. Breyer said that while p2p software could be used to steal copyrighted material, he considered that the technology had 'some really excellent uses'.

Musicians themselves seem split down the middle on the subject. On the one hand are artists as diverse as Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks, Dr Dre and Metallica who claim that free music would ruin the business and destroy their livelihoods.

Others such as Courtney Love, Moby, Brian Eno and Public Enemy's Chuck D have all come out in support of file-sharing technology. Their argument is that file sharing allows their music to reach a wider audience outside of the control of the record industry.

Other technology vendors such as the Consumer Electronics Association and Intel have also asked that the Supreme Court does not limit the freedom to innovate through fear of misuse of a technology. While neither of these organisations feels comfortable with some of the characters behind some of the p2p services, they see the judgement as having a decisive effect on consumer electronics development for decades to come.

Likewise, the copyright holders would like to see consumer electronics companies acting more responsibly and considering what effect their inventions have on others before developing and marketing them.

If MGM wins the music business would use the judgement to drive the p2p networks out of business by claiming billions of dollars in damages and lost revenues. If Grokster and StreamCast win, then swapping copyright files would still be illegal - that part of the law is not in doubt. However, the music and movie businesses would have to continue their current expensive and damaging, from a PR view, pursuit of individual file swappers.

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