Fighting Indigestion At the Internet Buffet

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3 min read

Take gigabytes of cheap storage and add ever-more powerful search engines. Throw in a generous dose of broadband. Add a dollop or two of file-sharing software. Stir well. It's a great feast for half a billion end users, consumer electronics companies, Internet service providers, and file-sharing services.

But it's a recipe for indigestion for the fat-cat music and entertainment industries. Their handsomely paid legal teams now spend long days dishing up lawsuits and trying to get the 24/7 supply of music and movies off the digital menu.

As industry officials try to control film and music distribution even as they keep cashing in on it, they are courting disaster by trying to squash the technology that keeps the buffet open.

How? Consider Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer v. Grokster. The suit, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, charges peer-to-peer file-sharing software makers Grokster and StreamCast Networks with willfully enabling copyright infringement by allowing users to exchange music and video files. Grokster and StreamCast say their software can be used for both legitimate and illegal file-sharing purposes, and that they shouldn't be held accountable for what their customers do with their services.

There's a lot at stake, obviously. Beyond copyright infringement looms the issue of product liability--are producers of consumer electronics and software responsible for making sure that copyright can't be violated?

MGM v. Grokster is the latest version of the dual-use problem that the Betamax case, Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, presented to the same court in 1983. The court decided back then that someone selling copying equipment would not be liable as long as the equipment was "capable of substantial noninfringing use."

So far several lower U.S. courts have ruled that Grokster et al. can't be held responsible for what their users do. We'll know before July whether the nation's highest court agrees.

Another issue concerns Internet designer David Clark's end-to-end principle [see the "Amici Curiae of Computer Science Professors" filed on behalf of Grokster at]. Networks that are designed according to Clark's end-to-end principle are general purpose; they can be used to do things not anticipated at the time of the original design. Peer-to-peer networks are not new developments then, but rather the design upon which the entire Internet is based.

This is Hollywood versus Silicon Valley, with odd alliances of big entertainment and technology companies lining up on each side. Sony BMG's newish CEO Andy Lack, for example, is in the ironic position of being in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer camp, while his company's landmark VCR case is leveraged by Grokster against MGM.

What the entertainment industry continues to miss, in its enthusiasm for cutting off the food chain, is the impossibility of creating completely effective copyright protection.

And it continues to overlook evidence indicating that whenever it finally does embrace new technology developments, sales improve and new markets open up. A new Pew Foundation Internet and American Life Project survey released in March, for example, says that the use of pay-for-download services rose from 24 percent of all Internet users to 43 percent this year. So could it be that if you make legal on-demand downloading quick, easy, and competitively priced--think iTunes--people will pay? Cultivating, not killing, technology is the only hope the entertainment folks have of staying at the digital content table. Otherwise, someone else is bound to eat their lunch.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Last month was the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 13 crisis, in which three American astronauts almost died when an explosion crippled their spacecraft three-quarters of the way to the moon. Bringing the crew back home alive required the efforts of thousands back on the ground in NASA's mission control centers.

Although many people are familiar with the Apollo 13 mission thanks to the 1995 movie of the same name, a 2-hour dramatization necessarily condenses and fictionalizes many elements of the epic four-day engineering struggle to keep the crew alive. So in honor of this anniversary, IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Stephen Cass interviewed key flight controllers and drew on hours of audio recorded from mission control during the crisis. He's been able to separate the facts from the fiction and uncover aspects of the story that are little known--even to the participants. This special report is now available on Spectrum Online at "

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