P2P In Court: MGM vs Grokster and Its Affect On Us

Part 1 of x (over the next few days) on an interesting legal issue...

I’ve been hearing for while about an upcoming decision in the Supreme Court (hereafter SC) on the case of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer versus Grokster. Basically, the headlines that I read and the general feel I got from podcasts and tech discussions was a little short of apocalyptic, but it was still very hyped-up. When the SC issued a summary decision basically against Grokster and for MGM, I heard groans from the tech sector everywhere. "It is the end of P2P and freedom of expression. Run for your lives!"

Okay, that’s too strong. But I think my friend Mike hit it on the head: the headlines were rather shocking because it made better news. Makes sense. So, this morning he and I listened to part of a podcast from IT Conversations responding to the SC’s decision and I learned that the situation is not very much like the impressions I have been getting at all.

Now an aside. So why is this important to you? You may not realize it, but it actually is. Do you have a VCR? If you do, be thankful, because a case like this came up about 20 years ago on that issue. If it would have gone the other way, you might not have one today. So what is the issue, anyway? It’s all about P2P, or peer-to-peer sharing of files, or, in other words, it is technology designed to duplicate files of whatever type via direct communication between computers as opposed to downloading files from central servers. The benefit of P2P is that it takes the burden of centralized servers for downloading files from the internet. In some cases this is no big deal. In others it is. For example, hosting a podcast like Adam Curry’s would cost hundreds of dollars daily just for web hosting fees alone because of the bandwidth needed to distribute his mp3 podcast to the world. You see, transfering plain text like html over the internet isn’t any big deal. But transfering audio or video is a huge deal, and is enormously expensive if many people actually download your stuff. This is where P2P shines. Use a P2P program like Bittorrent and voila, instant relief from this.

But there is more to this as well. There could be serious implications for how information is spread over the web. As a general rule, copyright holders are rather uncomfortable with P2P, because it is commonly used to distribute copyrighted materials illegally. Technologist, music fans, etc., love P2P. So who will get the law to swing in their favor? Copyright holders who want to restrict technological innovations like P2P, or techies, who want to push technology along, in this area and others. We’ll see. Now back to the narrative of my day...

So, like any patriotic American, I found the SC’s published opinion on the issue and read it (yes, Kirk, I know you never thought I would do something like that). You can find it here:

http://www.eff.org/IP/P2P/MGM_v_Grokster/04-480.pdf

If you only read part of it, I would recommend the official opinion of the court, done by Justice Souter (24 pages), though all of it is interesting reading. It encompasses more and, in my opinion, a slightly easier read than the other opinions expressed.

I also downloaded and read a transcript of the arguments presented by both sides back in March, found here:

http://www.supremecourtus.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/04-480.pdf

This was marginally interesting, but unless you are really into this issue, I don’t recommend it.

So the controversial thing today in the tech world was the SC’s decision for MGM. I’m going to go against the tech grain (meaning, I haven’t heard anyone at all say this), but I’m going to side with the justices on this one. Why? I’ll get to that. Really, I do like P2P and technological innovation. Honest! You’ll see what I mean. First, a little history.

Comments

Kirk H. Sowell (6/28/2005 10:03 PM)

One of the more prominent law-oriented blogs is SCOTUS blog - SCOTUS standing for Supreme Court of the United States. This is the link to a message board dealing specifically with the case under discussion here:
http://www.scotusblog.com/discussion/archives/grokster/index.html

Kirk H. Sowell (6/28/2005 10:06 PM)

This is their homepage:
SCOTUS blog