BBC News Online, Monday, 27 June, 2005
A decision in a key legal case that pits movie studios against the makers of
file-sharing software is imminent.
The US Supreme Court is deciding if the software firms can be blamed when
their creations are used to break the law.
The case was brought by 28 media makers who claim the main use of file-sharing
networks is to help people illegally swap copyrighted material.
Despite the expected judgement, some experts fear the decision may be delayed
This legal battle began in October 2001 when movie and music makers first
filed a legal complaint against Streamcast Networks - creators of the
Grokster file-sharing system.
The complaint alleged that Streamcast was effectively profiting from the
rampant piracy on the network and sought substantial damages for this
The film makers and recording companies have pursued the case even though
successive US courts have sided with Streamcast and said that it should not
be held liable for what users do with its creation.
In making these decisions, the judges have referred to the legal precedent
created when Sony was sued over the Betamax video tape recorder in the late 1970s.
In that ruling the Supreme Court decided that Sony could not be prosecuted
because the video tape recorder had "substantial non-infringing uses".
In effect the judges said if most users of a technology were law-abiding there
was no reason to stop a device being used if some people broke the law with
The movie studios and music makers have argued that this ruling does not apply
because file-sharing systems only have "substantial infringing uses". In
other words, most people use them to pirate copyrighted material.
At issue is whether Streamcast can be held liable for this illegal use.
What is clear is that the Supreme Court ruling will do little to dent the
appetite of net users for file-sharing systems.
Research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that 57% of
broadband users believe there is not much the US government can do to combat
The survey also revealed that many people are swapping files on each others'
portable music players or via e-mail and instant messaging systems.
Technology experts fear that if the Supreme Court justices decide in favour of
the movie and music makers it could stifle innovation as all new technologies
will have to have potential infringing uses designed out.
They worry that this could lead to even more controls on what people can do
with the CDs, DVDs and music they have bought.
Monday 27 June is the last day that the Supreme Court could issue a ruling as
it is the final day of this judicial session.
However, the court has the option of extending the session by one day or
simply leaving the case to the next judicial session that follows its
three-month summer recess.
Others expect a decision that will see the case returned to a lower court with
specific instructions from the Supreme Court justices on what remedy should
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been fighting the case alongside
Streamcast, expects that the decision will have a knock-on effect on the US
Congress which could lead to re-drafts of copyright law.
Whatever happens the ruling is unlikely to stop movie and music makers
pursuing people who pirate and swap copyrighted material. So far US movie and
music industry associations have sued more than 12,000 people for piracy.