MGM vs Grokster

The US Supreme Court is currently pondering the MGM vs Grokster case, where Hollywood is going after one of the file sharing firms (there’s an ongoing case against Kazaa’s parent company in Australia, too). If MGM is successful, the court might reverse the Sony judgement, which held that video recorders shouldn’t be banned just because people *might* misuse them. Of course, not long after the Sony case – during which Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America compared the video recorder to the Boston Strangler – the home video boom arrived, making stacks of money for the movie industry.

If the Sony judgement is reversed, the effects could be dramatic: the judgement established a precedent that just because something *might* be used for dodgy deeds, that wasn’t enough of a justification for making the device illegal. So while MGM is going after a specific P2P application, the court’s verdict could affect all kinds of technology. After all, iPods can be used for illegal music. CD burners can be used to make illegal copies. External hard disks can be used to duplicate music illegally. And so on.

Writing in Salon, Andrew Leonard points out that the entertainment industry rarely has our best interests at heart:

I’m not a particularly paranoid person. But the entertainment industry did do everything it could to stop me from owning VCRs and MP3 players. It drives record company executives nuts that I can plug a newly purchased compact disc into my computer and rip the music on it to my hard drive in seconds. They are constantly experimenting with ways to stop that, and a ruling in their favor in MGM vs. Grokster, even if ostensibly aimed at P2P networks, could give them the legal authority to be even more aggressive than they already are.

…If the entertainment studios had their way, every time a format changed, you’d have to buy all your records all over again. In their ideal world, we would hold restricted licenses to our content, not ownership. Digital rights management would cripple our all-powerful computers, creating backups would be impossible, and the basic human impulse to share the wealth of information that helps define who we are would be beset with obstacles. This is not paranoia. At every step of the way, intellectual-property-right holders have resisted technological innovations that give ordinary people more scope to enjoy and consume music, television, movies or any other content.

Leonard is, of course, absolutely correct. So why is the technology industry – which is much bigger than the music and movie industries combined – so quiet on the matter? As Ashlee Vance writes in The Register:

Are these companies that produce the life blood of our economy really going to be pushed around by a stuffed mouse with buttons and helium balloon shoved down his throat? Only one company had an opinion all its own on the matter? Shame.

It’s not even just lack of voice in the briefs that is depressing. The big whig vendor brass has been silent on the matter. No one has had the guts to call out Hollywood for the ancients they are. No major company been smart enough to take a strong, public stand on P2P. That McNealy guy at Sun usually has a lot to say. Instead, they’ve twiddled their thumbs as the RIAA sued your children, grandparents and naval cadets.

If the media moguls – the pigopolists – win, then the tech vendors should tuck their tales between their assess and waddle off without a sound. No sense whimpering on the way out if you didn’t roar on the way in.

Lucky for the vendors, the pigopolists can’t win this one in the long run. The digital age started too many years ago to bottle it up now.

Let’s see how Apple likes it though when iPod sales are halted for a few years as the courts decide how legitimate the device really is. Bite your tongue, Steve.