Technology innovation on trial

Imagine a world where researchers don’t research and innovators don’t innovate for fear of being prosecuted. Or one in which CD/DVD burner manufacturers are hauled into court because some Joe Blow used their products to illegally duplicate music or movie discs. And imagine that manufacturers then jack up the price of these devices to cover their legal costs in case of lengthy legal battles.

Whether or not this state of affairs becomes the grim reality confronting tech companies largely depends on the outcome of a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s a lawsuit filed by 28 large entertainment companies against makers of such peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs as Morpheus, Grokster and Kazaa.

The suit doesn’t just aim to put the companies offering these programs out of business. According to some legal experts, it also represents a challenge to any technology — present or future — that appears to threaten copyright. What makes this case (MGM v. Grokster) troubling for many lawyers, technology analysts and advocates is the plaintiffs’ desire to sue companies for technologies that may be used to facilitate copyright violations, even if those technologies meet the conditions set forth in the precedent-setting Betamax case of 1984. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that technologies such as VCRs and their manufacturers are not liable for the actions of customers who may engage in copyright infringement, as long as the technologies have substantial non-infringement uses as well.

The ruling allowed for a great deal of innovation and paved the way for such technologies as DVD and CD players and burners, along with a whole host of other media-sharing technology.

Such technological innovation could be threatened if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns or substantially revises that ruling, said Annalee Newitz, policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “The [technology] companies are going to have to charge the consumer to protect themselves in case they are sued. The other thing we really worry about is not just established technologies, but all those in the pipeline now that will never come to fruition.”

The implications are troubling to say the least. For instance, a small company that comes up with a new way of copying or distributing media of various kinds may not even try to make the technology public or develop it further out for fear of getting sued.

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