Video: File-sharing debate

updated 3/29/2005 6:40:24 PM ET 2005-03-29T23:40:24

The mostly silver-haired Supreme Court debated the file-swapping, instant-messaging world of the justices’ grandchildren Tuesday, openly worrying that allowing lawsuits to protect Internet movie and music rights could stunt development of the next iPod or other cool high-tech gadget.

During a lively hour-long argument, the court puzzled over the repercussions of granting the entertainment industry authority to sue technology manufacturers over consumers who use their products to steal music and movies online.

Justices wondered aloud whether lawsuits against manufacturers might have discouraged past inventions like copy machines and VCRs as well as newer innovations like iPod music players. All can be used to make illegal copies of documents, films and songs.

Video: File-sharing showdown

Justice Antonin Scalia said a ruling against Grokster Ltd., a developer of leading file-sharing software, could mean that if “I’m a new inventor, I’m going to get sued right away.”

Scalia, 69, referred to the company as “Grakster, whatever this outfit is called,” eliciting chuckles from the packed courtroom.

The entertainment industry’s lawyer, Donald Verrilli Jr., said his clients have no interest in suing inventors who take steps to block customers from stealing. But Grokster and other file-sharing services actively encourage consumers to steal, Verrilli said.

Verrilli called Grokster’s software “a gigantic engine of infringement” that thieves use to steal 2.6 billion songs, movies and other digital files each month.

“The scale of the whole thing is mind-boggling,” Verrilli said.

Supporters of file-sharing technology say a ruling against the software companies could effectively give the entertainment industry a legal veto over up-and-coming gadgets; they fear the threat of expensive lawsuits could hamper development of new devices.

The case has star power on both sides.

Don Henley, Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks and other musicians are backing the major recording labels, saying their livelihoods are threatened if millions of people can obtain their songs for nothing.

About 20 independent recording artists, including musician and producer Brian Eno, rockers Heart and rapper-activist Chuck D, support the file-sharing technology. They say it allows greater distribution of their music and limits the power of huge record companies.

The entertainment industry is eager to use the Internet to sell more music and movies, and points to the stunning popularity of Apple Computer’s iPod, which can be used to play songs purchased online.

But Justice David H. Souter noted that even iPod users can play music downloaded illegally.

“I know perfectly well if I can get music on my iPod without paying, that’s what I’m going to do,” said Souter, 65.

Souter questioned why the industry wouldn’t also sue Apple on the same grounds as Grokster. Verrilli said that, unlike Grokster, Apple took reasonable steps to discourage piracy.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, 68, pressed Grokster’s lawyer, Richard Taranto, on whether profits from trafficking in stolen property can rightfully be used to help finance a young technology business. “That seems wrong to me,” Kennedy said.

The court was expected to rule before July.

Regardless of the outcome, it still won’t be legal to download copyrighted materials over the Internet without permission. And any ruling won’t affect thousands of copyright lawsuits filed against Internet users caught sharing music and movies online.

Besides the lawsuits against music fans, the entertainment industry has deliberately polluted file-sharing networks with poor-quality copies of songs and falsely named files, among other tactics, to frustrate Internet thieves.

Two lower courts previously sided with Grokster. A trial judge and a U.S. appeals court in California each based their decisions on the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that Sony Corp. could not be sued over consumers who used its VCRs to make illegal copies of movies.

The lower courts ruled that, like VCRs, the file-sharing software can be used for “substantial” legal purposes, such as giving away free songs, free software or government documents. The lower courts reasoned that the legitimate uses for such software gave companies like Grokster protection from copyright lawsuits based on acts by their customers.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who was among the justices hearing arguments Tuesday, wrote the 5-4 Sony decision. Only two other justices from 1984 remain on the court: Sandra Day O’Connor, who sided with Stevens, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who dissented.

The case is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios v. Grokster, 04-480.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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