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.