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Sharing the news

(This column appears in the October 05 issue of PC Advisor)

Inaccurate media reports have led users to believe that the US Supreme Court has ruled filesharing technology as illegal. Oh, how wrong they are...

One subject is guaranteed to raise blood pressures in the PC Advisor online forums each time it crops up. Peer to peer filesharing networks have been a regular topic since the forum began. And with the introduction of a new, dedicated P2P discussion forum (www.pcadvisor.co.uk/p2p), we've seen some lively debate, to put it mildly.

The discussions have been fuelled by recent media reports that the US Supreme Court has declared open season on filesharing networks that might be used for piracy - at least, that's how the story was reported on CNN and other major news services.

They got it wrong. Backward, in fact. The Supreme Court said explicitly that filesharing technology isn't, in itself, illegal - even if it is used to infringe copyrights. To put the court's point simply, technology doesn't infringe copyrights, people do.

And in the cases of Grokster and Morpheus, the court said the people who created those particular filesharing networks were so reprehensive in advertising their support for illegally trading copyrighted material, they could be sued for contributing to that piracy.

What about the filesharing technology itself? Not a problem, said the justices. In fact, the court's unanimous opinion is about the benefits and legal uses of point-to-point networks.

The problem isn't the technology, the court said. The problem is the mountain of evidence that Grokster and StreamCast Networks (the Morpheus people) obviously intended to support piracy. And for that, those companies will have to face the music.

It's easy to see how news reporters got the story wrong, though. On one side, the music and film industries were crowing about their great victory over filesharing. On the other side, IT vendors were moaning that now any company with technology that might be used illegally will live in fear of lawsuits. Reporters probably concluded these people knew what they were talking about.

There was no great victory over filesharing - just over Grokster and StreamCast. And there's no cloud hanging over all new technologies - only over companies that invite, encourage and support stealing copyrighted material.

Music and film companies should crow while they can. From now on, they'll have to prove that a filesharing network's operators clearly intended the network to be used illegally. That could be tough with targets such as Kazaa, which explicitly forbids swapping copyrighted material in its click-through licence agreement.

Setting the standard

Tech companies shouldn't be moaning. They should be glad the Supreme Court understands the importance of new technologies. These justices are setting a standard for the entire US court system. And that standard is very tech-friendly - and tech-savvy. Three of the justices went out of their way to say that CD burners, digital video recorders, MP3 players, internet search engines and P2P software are all legal (and to mention that cable descramblers aren't).

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that Sony couldn't be held liable just because the VCRs it sold could be misused. In fact, an estimated 90 percent of VCR use was for illegal copying. But Sony hadn't promoted the machines for that, so the court gave Sony the benefit of the doubt.

Twenty-one years later, the court still gives new technologies that benefit. Why? The justices understand that technologies grow, change and mature. Early on they may be used for piracy but new, legitimate uses will never be discovered if they're never given a fair chance.

This court understands the need to protect copyrights but it's willing to protect and nurture new technologies, even if they're used for piracy. Just not if they're used to promote piracy.

So when you hear someone lamenting the Grokster decision, pass along the good news: the Supreme Court hasn't declared open season on filesharing networks or any other technology. Just pirates.

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