Music Rules

A Supreme Court ruling against peer-to-peer network Grokster would do more than punish music pirates. It would affect the future of the Internet.

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 television shows.

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