Filing for their share

Copyright owners awaken debate over file-swapping software
Wednesday, April 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:48 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Copyright owners are putting up a fight against companies that distribute file-sharing software, allowing users to download and share music and movies among other users.

The struggle continued at the Supreme Court last month when justices grappled over whether copyright owners should be allowed to sue Internet companies that allow users to download software to swap music and movie files from the company’s server. Once the users download the program, they can transfer files among one another.

In MGM Studios Inc. v. Grokster Ltd., copyright owners who refer to themselves as those who “own or control the vast majority of copyrighted motion pictures and sound recordings in the United States” are suing Grokster Ltd. and StreamCast Networks Inc., companies that distribute the software to users.

A decision is expected in June.

Sandy Davidson, MU communications law teacher, said the primary issue is whether Grokster’s software is permissible because it permits copyright infringement.

“Grokster is not itself doing the copying but might be contributing to copyright infringement,” Davidson said. “File swappers would not be able to file swap if it weren’t for Grokster providing the software.”

This case is similar to the 1984 Sony Betamax case, where the Supreme Court ruled it is legal for users to make copies of copyrighted television programs at home. It said the Betamax could be used to copy programs that were in the public domain.

In August, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the software vendors were not liable for their users’ violation of copyright regulations.

“This is a case about contributory infringement rather than direct infringement of copyright laws,” said Peter Davis, an MU law professor.

Davis said that if users were to pay for the sharing, then there is no issue. They would pay a loyalty fee for using the company’s software to download and share files, similar to eBay’s online payments.

“I think that’s the way to go,” Davis said.

Laura Schafer, an MU junior, said she thinks paying for music is fairer to the music industry. She previously used Kazaa to download music, although now she does it through iTunes.

She was not worried about the copyright rules or getting caught.

“I never mind paying money for good music,” Schafer said. “I feel like things like iTunes are a legal and fair way to download.”

Those opposing the case say that if copyright owners were able to sue inventors of new technology because their users illegally used the advancement, then few technologies would be safe from courts.

“It is unlikely that this ruling will keep other technology companies from developing new ways to download and share music and movies,” said Geri Hudson, manager of marketing communications and collaborative services for Information and Technology Services for MU.

“What everyone needs to remember is that it is illegal to download and share copyrighted materials from the Internet without prior permission.” If MU students are caught illegally downloading copyrighted material from the Internet, their access to the MU computer network can be denied. The university follows the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which is outlined on the IAT Services Website. The act is a federal law designed to protect copyright owners from online theft.

Natalie Scherer, an MU sophomore, has never heard of Grokster but has downloaded music.

“If there’s ways around it, the students are going to do it anyway,” she said.

Lauren Anderson, an MU junior, downloads music on her personal computer. Anderson said she wouldn’t be against paying a fee for the music, but she adds that if it is music she likes, she will buy it at a store.

“I don’t feel morally wrong downloading music,” she said.

In addition to being removed from the MU network, MU violators are required to attend a one-hour course on safe computing and then their right to use the network is restored.

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