In what may be a momentous ruling and certainly a setback to the music, film and entertainment industry’s effort to fight illegal on-line downloading and file swapping, on August 19, the three judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found that Grokster and Streamcast Networks were not violating the copyright laws merely because they made software available that allows people to trade digital content (e.g., movies, music). To be clear, the decision in no way condones copyright infringement, nor changes the law relating to the illegal use or theft of copyrighted materials, nor authorizes anyone to ignore the intellectual property rights of others. But harkening back to cases which look and feel (pun intended) much like the Sony Betamax cases years ago, the court ruled that this particular type of software—referred to as “file sharing” software—was designed in such a way that it could not be held illegal.
It is noteworthy that this is the same court that essentially brought Napster to its knees a few years ago with an exactly opposite conclusion. While critics will argue that the ruling is a descriptive guide to designing software that can avoid being caught in the web (another pun) of the Copyright Act, many others welcomed the ruling for bringing clarity to a murky area of the law and focusing on the distinctions which make some software and systems infringing, while others are not. For you technical gurus in the audience, the court found it significant that neither Grokster nor Streamcast used centralized databases or computer systems with programming file directories pointing to files on individual users’ computers—in other words, these systems didn’t direct other people (and couldn’t even intercept or prevent people) to actual or potentially pirated music, film or any other content. As with the Betamax cases, the court also found that although there were plenty of arguments (and evidence) provided in entertainment industry briefs noting that the vast majority of content exchanged by these programs was illicitly copied, the software Grokster and Morpheus (the software licensed by Streamcast), had other substantial non-infringing uses and thus could not be held illegal as a matter of law.