Cry with me, friends, the end is nigh. The free music joyride might get pulled over, ticketed and thrown in the can soon when the Supreme Court rules on motion picture giant MGM’s case against the creators of peer-to-peer downloading programs, including Grokster and Morpheus.
The case will decide whether companies can create file-sharing software while legally shrugging off responsibility for its use, saying that it’s up to consumers and how they want to use the programs.
That libertarian defense is eerily similar to the one gun manufacturers employed when Atlanta, Boston and a handful of other cities and states sued them for wrongful deaths. Not many of those cases succeeded. However, Smith & Wesson did agree to a settlement. Included in it are copious amounts of safety features like childproof locks, multiple serial numbers and “smart-gun” technology to prevent unauthorized persons from using a gun. In other words, additions to make it more difficult for wrongful or accidental use of the weapons.
If the software companies lose their case and have to move on to producing less illegal products, it’s not clear what will happen to users, since the programs are already widely available on the Internet. It’s also unclear how the ruling will be enforced, if at all.
Unless the justice department receives a fat budget increase to send cease-and-desist orders to everyone still logged on to KaZaA, it’s unlikely that the ruling will ebb the massive flow of pirated music across the Internet.
The music and movie industries have whole-heartedly blamed that tide for their cascading sales descent, and it’s hard to argue against the record companies — not many people go out and buy an album if their friend has burned it for them. The supposedly evil and mean music industry didn’t really have many other options — there are simply too many hands in the cookie jar for them to sit by without pressing charges.
Like Smith & Wesson and the rehabilitated pay-to-play Napster service, the software companies should probably relent and embrace a compromise that gives artists and labels some compensation.
And at some point, consumers will have to accept that maybe they shouldn’t be able to crash their hard drives with contraband. There are always going to be ways to steal music, unless the RIAA decides to sue the manufacturers of blank CDs as well. Whether LimeWire and Grokster users stay online regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the wholesale thievery did result in some positives. Lots of people got lots of music for nothing, and now it’s easier than ever to buy songs online for half the cost of retail.
Cory Walsh Montana Kaimin, University of Montana.