For those of you who don’t know what is going on, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in MGM Studios v. Grokster today. This case is the modern high-tech equivalent of the 1983 Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios betamax case.
The question the court is really being asked to decide is “Who is responsible for the actions of an individual”. This question is really the same question the court had to decide in 1983. Was Sony responsible for how people used their betamax VCRs or was the person? Is Grokster responsible for the files people share using its application? Are firearms manufactures responsible when criminals use guns to commit crime and murder people? Is microsoft responsible when people copy CDs using a computer running windows?
In their zeal to limit illegal copying and distribution of media these companies are treading on dangerous ground. The corporations who make this technology are not responsible for what their end users do with the technology. Just like firearms can be used legaly (hunting, self-defense, etc…) or illegally (to commit crimes and murder people), Grokster can be used to legally transfer files. Not everyone restricts the use of their copyrighted material to the degree that traditional media companies have. Just think about all the open source software that could be transferred via these file sharing tools. How about all the classic literature that is in the public domain and in a digial format thanks to Project Gutenberg.
Then, what ramifications will this have on the concept of Fair Use? Regardless of what they may say, it is perfectly leagal for me to copy a CD I purchased onto a cassette so I can listen to it in my car. It is perfectly legal for me to rip a CD I purchased to mp3s so I can listen to them on my ipod.
Fair Use is fairly important because it allows for things like quoting articles, making parodies, etc…. It ensures that we can use “stuff” we have leagally acquired in certain ways that are “fair”. Imagine if you had to get permission from someone to quote two or three sentences from their book and write a scathing review of it. It would be hard to show examples of why you didn’t like something, wouldn’t it?
What is illegal is me making copies and distributing them. I know, I know, you are saying but I don’t charge anything…it’s legal as long as I give it away. Plain and simple, IT IS ILLEGAL. The copyright holder has all the rights regarding distibution, etc…. So, unless they have told you otherwise (either by licensing the content under something like the GPL or Creative Commons or by them telling you it’s ok) you cannot distribute their “stuff”.
Anyway, I have digressed. I agree that we need to curb intelectual property theft. People need to understand–clearly understand–what can and cannot be done with material. People need to understand that copying other’s “stuff” is illegal unless they tell you that you can. These media companies need to understand that we the consumer need the ability to use what we have purchased. Everyone needs to understand that just because people use something illegally doesn’t mean that thing is illegal…it simply means that that person is doing something illegal.
[Update 2012-12-26 15:43:09] The link for the sony vs universal case at http://www.virtualrecordings.com/betamax.htm didn’t work. I replaced it with a wikipedia link.