The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled peer-to-peer
sites such as Grokster, Kazaa and Morpheus can
be held responsible for copyright infringement
by their users. In a rare 9-0 decision in favor
of Plaintiff MGM, the Justices held that a business
distributing technology with the active intent
of promoting copyright violations could not escape
liability for subsequent copyright infringements.
Although unanimous, the ruling is a strained effort
to isolate file sharing from other industries.
In arguing their position, Grokster had relied
on previous rulings regarding VHS technology.
In a 1984 case, the Supreme Court ruled the makers
of VHS recorders could not be held liable for
copyright piracy by users of the machines. The
Court specifically ruled that VHS and any other
technology with "substantially non-infringing
uses" could not be held responsible if individuals
illegally taped movies or shows off of television.
Indeed, lower courts had ruled in favor of Grokster
using the VHS ruling as precedent. So, what's
the difference between the two technologies?
In a somewhat tortured reasoning, the Justices
distinguished the two cases by focusing on the
"intent" of the companies. If a company
distributes a technology with the intent that
it be used by third parties for copyright infringement,
then it is responsible. "Intent" is
shown by a company making a "clear expression"
of such intent or taking affirmative steps in
Writing the opinion, Justice Souter explained:
"There is no evidence that Grokster
an effort to filter copyrighted material from
users' downloads or otherwise impede the sharing
of copyrighted files,"
He further explained,
"The company showed itself to be aiming to
satisfy a known source of demand for copyright
infringement, the market comprising former Napster
No Nail In The Coffin
The entertainment industry is trumpeting the end
of file sharing. This ruling is no such thing.
To understand the impact of the ruling, a brief
discussion of legal procedure is necessary.
The Supreme Court decision does not find Grokster
liable for anything. Instead, it simply reverses
a lower court ruling that Grokster could not possibly
be found liable. As a result, the case will return
to the trial court and eventually go to trial.
In the trial, the Plaintiff will have to prove
that Grokster distributed file-sharing software
with the intent that it be used for copyright
infringement. Proving such a case will not be
easy since intent is a vague concept.
The decision of the Supreme Court provides the
entertainment industry with a basis for pursuing
file sharing companies. Is file sharing at an
end? Not likely.
About the Author
Richard Chapo is with SanDiegoBusinessLawFirm.com
- providing San Diego businesses with legal services.
This article is for general education purposes.
Nothing in this article creates an attorney-client