Late last June, in MGM v. Grokster, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that file-sharing companies can be held accountable for what users do with their software. I’m not worried, however. That’s because I’ve never used my computer to steal music.
I have reported on file sharing since the heady early days of Napster. I’ve interviewed many of the major players. And I’ve stuck a microphone in the faces of technology industry observers, who have given me their take on the financial, ethical, and societal impact of peer-to-peer networks. But I have never shared the content of my hard drive or downloaded content from others’.
I wasn’t frightened of headlines like “Tech Reporter Busted in File-Sharing Crime Spree.” I don’t steal music for the same reason my parents didn’t want me stealing comic books from the corner convenience store. Forget MGM v. Grokster. It’s about right versus wrong. I’m a journalist; ideas and words are my currency; and I am sympathetic to other creative types, like musicians, who want to get paid for their work.
Nonetheless, I’m not inclined to believe that the Supreme Court’s decision will bring religion to any of these downloading heathens. It’s only six years since the dawn of Napster, but that has been long enough for many computer users to develop their own ethical standards regarding the sharing of music. And free, easy-to-use technology will always stay one step ahead of any law.
Still, I had to laugh when RealNetworks took the Supreme Court ruling and rubbed it squarely in Grokster’s face. “No hassles. No lawsuits,” read the full-page advertisement in the New York Times for Real’s Rhapsody music service. The outline of a judge’s gavel hovered above the words. Rhapsody offers music downloads licensed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), so its users won’t be subject to lawsuits from music labels.
In its 55-page opinion, the Court had criticized StreamCast Networks, the provider of file-sharing program Morpheus and another defendant in the case, for mentioning the granddaddy of all file-sharing services, Napster, in its own advertisement. That ad read, “Napster Inc. has announced that it will soon begin charging you a fee. That’s if the courts don’t order it shut down first. What will you do to get around it?”
Three weeks before the Court’s decision, I hosted a one-hour CNNRadio special called “The Fight over File-Sharing.” In one corner, representing the content providers: RIAA president Cary Sherman; Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) president Dan Glickman; Grammy-winning country music star Clint Black; and Marilyn Bergman, Oscar-winning songwriter and president of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.
In the other corner, arguing for the right to share files: Lawrence Lessig, cyberlaw expert and the author of Code and Free Culture; rapper and producer Chuck D of Public Enemy; Adam Eisgrau, executive director of P2P United, the lobby group that includes Grokster and StreamCast; and Wayne Rosso, Grokster’s former CEO.