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High court harmony

IN 2000, Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter described himself as computer-illiterate, but he deftly grasped the essence of the Grokster file-sharing case in his decision for a unanimous court yesterday. ''The ease of copying songs or movies using software like Grokster's . . . is fostering disdain for copyright protection," he wrote. Lower courts were wrong to dismiss a lawsuit by the recording industry.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court for trial. Grokster and the other defendants face a high bar to show that they have not violated copyright law on a massive scale. As Souter noted, the companies went into business to attract the millions of people who had been illegally trading songs over the Napster network, which a federal court shut down in 2001. ''Each took active steps to encourage infringement," Souter wrote.

The ruling yesterday applied to Grokster, Morpheus, and other file-sharing services that facilitate the swapping of songs. But it also gives the motion picture industry a weapon to deploy against services that use more-advanced technology to facilitate the trading of movie files, which are far larger.

The lower courts had accepted the defendants' argument that their file-sharing services were acceptable under terms of the 1984 Sony Betamax case, when the Supreme Court ruled that the manufacturers of video cassette recorders did not violate copyright laws even though VCRs could be used to copy movies illegally. Most people used them legitimately, the justices decided.

File-sharing, too, could be used for legitimate purposes, such as swapping literature that is not under copyright, but that argument ignores what file-sharing through Grokster is all about. ''Users seeking Top 40 songs, for example, or the latest release by Modest Mouse, are certain to be far more numerous than those seeking a free Decameron," Souter wrote. These file-sharing services, which generate money from advertising, would go out of business if they confined themselves to material in the public domain.

Supporters of file-sharing worry that the court is trying to throttle software innovation. But plaintiffs in the case, at a celebratory news conference, praised the latest innovations in music sales --iTunes and other commercial services that offer songs for a small fee with the permission of copyright holders. The Internet is an ideal medium for the transfer of popular music, but file-sharing companies should not expect to make money from these services without authorization.

Grokster supporters worry that lawyers will now dominate the development of new technology. That shouldn't be the case, unless the new software is intended to grab copyrighted material. David Souter, lawyer and judge, got the ruling just right.

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