Tuesday, June 28, 2005


Naked Law (a very good website for technology related court rulings throughout the world) reports the following:

"The US Supreme Court today unanimously ruled that file sharing networks can be held liable for software infringement by their users. The decision is a blow to P2P sites such as Grokster and Morpheus – they had sought to rely on the earlier Betamax case which protected video recorder manufacturers from legal action for copyright infringement, and which is often cited as showing that a manufacturer cannot be liable where its products are used to infringe copyright if they also have legitimate potential uses. This view looks set to change…"

Just yesterday, Julie (who is studying for the bar) proposed an interesting legal scenario which threw me for a loop: say you've got a guy named Bob. Bob buys a laser. Out of the box, the laser is little more than a lightbulb.. it is not capable of doing any damage. Bob, being an evil genius, twinks the laser to increase its power. While testing these modifications, Bob accidentally fires the newly twinked laser at his neighbor's house, blowing it to smithereens.

Who is liable? Common sense says Bob, right? After all, he's the mad scientist! But no... torts law actually holds the manufacturer of the LASER respsonsible, since it was their product that did the damage! Crazy huh? Seems to me by that logic, companies that make guns could be held responsible for murders committed with their products, but somehow this isn't the case (perhaps somebody with legal knowhow can explain this to me?).

Whatever the case, similar logic has now been applied to these P2P file sharing sites, who now can be held responsible if copyrighted material crosses their network. My biggest problem with this is that I have absolutely no idea how the maker of the software would be able to prevent this sort of thing from happenning!

And what about open source stuff? What if somebody gets ahold of the code base to one of these P2P apps and twinks it, like Bob with his laser? Does that mean the original manufacturer is still responsible?

Now, the Supreme Court says the problem with Grokster was not the technology... it was the way the technology was presented. The ruling goes on to say that "dual-use technology" that does not "itself engage in unauthorized copying" is fine... only things that are "almost exclusively" used for copyright infringement are against the law.

To that, I say... huh? This is murky territory at best. Law like this sucks because this distinction cannot help but be arbitrary! Take Limewire, for example.. this is something that could be a very useful tool, but guess what... it's used for downloading music. It is not presented as a music pirating tool, but I'd be shocked if it wasn't used almost exclusively for illegal downloads.

All most of us can really do is wait for the smoke to clear... and to wait for more test cases, since it is the cases that come after the initial ruling that determine whether or not something is going to stick. I'm sure we won't have to wait long.


chornbe said...

It will be a sad day for this country when gun makers are unilaterally held responsible for murders. I like guns. I enjoy shooting as a hobby (I'm a pretty good shot) and I enjoy the engineering that goes into making guns - a technology that is older and little-changed than many people think.

By extension, the Bowie Knife Works must then be held responsible, the Swiss Army Knife company, the Ronco Pocket Fisherman and Craftsman. What about General Motors for every Vehicular Homicide case? What about shovels? And so on...

I maintain that the tool isn't the problem - a gun, a laser, a knife, a car - it's the intent and purpose for which it's used that is the problem.

If you could wave a magic wand and make all the guns everywhere disappear, then believe me people would start killing each other with wooden shovels, pink ribbons and all kinds of other, otherwise innoculous shit.


chornbe said...

(sigh) I meant wooden spoons, not wooden shovels. You get the point.

robustyoungsoul said...

No, your point was rendered entirely futile by your reference to wooden shovels.

Julie said...

First off, I can't believe I am doing law related work during my break - damn you Yeager. Okay here is my response (which should not in any way be construed as legal advice, because that could get me disbarred before I even take the Bar):

As for the laser case, the laser company was held liable for damage caused to the neighbor's house because there was no warning on the packaging that the laser should not be used for Bob's purposes. A product may be defective as a result of the manufacturer's failure to give adequate warnings as to the risks involved in using the product. In Bob's case, while his use was not the ordinary use, it was reasonably foreseeable, so the manufacturer had a duty to Bob and Bob's neighbor to either warn Bob not to tweak the product for his use, or make the product safe for Bob's use. Here, Bob's tweaking is what caused a latent defect in the product to set fire to the neighbor's house.

It was a very fact-specific hypothetical, so I think it would be incorrect to draw any broad conclusions from it.

As for guns and bowie knives, manufacturers are not held liable for dangerous products if the danger is apparent and there is no safer way to make the product.

Therefore, a manufacturer would be held liable if the gun was defectively made and discharged without anyone pulling the trigger, but would not be held liable for murder by the weapon.

That's the law as I know it. Hope it helps.

I don't know anything about copyright law, so you guys are on your own there.

robustyoungsoul said...

What a clear and lucid explanation. Don't you realize that clarity and rationality have no place on the web?!?! n00b.

chornbe said...

And especially have no place making arguments in *this* group!!

Anonymous said...

These are all very lucid legal points. However, it is important to recognize that through it all, the bathhouse homoeroticism displayed by Chad Pennington each and every Sunday reaches out to every man within shouting distance of a television box and renders us impotent and useless.