A Los Angeles judge dealt the major music labels and movie studios a stunning blow on Friday, throwing out their case against the Grokster and StreamCast file-trading services on grounds that neither service can be held accountable for illegal file swapping done by users.
U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson said that Grokster and StreamCast provide technology used for both legal and illegal means much like a VCR or copy machine, and they cannot control what the end user does with the technology. In addition, neither Grokster or StreamCast have immediate knowledge of when a user is trading a copyrighted file or a centralized means to stop these actions.
"It is undisputed that there are substantial noninfringing uses for defendants' software," wrote Judge Wilson [PDF, 1.4 MB] . "For instance, StreamCast has adduced evidence that the Morpheus program is regularly used to facilitate and search for public domain materials, government documents, media content for which distribution is authorized, media content as to which the rights owners do not object to distribution, and computer software for which distribution is permitted."
Those words surely made the music label-backed Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) weep.
The RIAA had managed to drive Napster into the ground in a San Francisco court and has since had several victories against other services. Judge Wilson, however, was quick to draw a distinction between Napster and the current services at hand, blocking the RIAA's past arguments.
Napster developed and owned its own software. In addition, Napster maintained a centralized index of files and helped initiate connections between users. This placed Napster in a much more actionable position as compared to current, dispersed networks.
"When Napster closed down, the Napster file-sharing network disappeared with it," the judge wrote.
By contrast, neither Grokster or StreamCast holds centralized control over the files being traded on their networks.
"Defendants provide software that communicates across networks that are entirely outside Defendants control. Wilson wrote. "If either Defendant closed their doors and deactivated all computers within their control, users of their products could continue sharing files with little or no interruption."
The judge also added in that Grokster and StreamCast are free to make contact with their users and provide updates to their software. Again, having direct contact with their users and improving their service, does not make the Grokster and StreamCast liable for illegal actions.
"Whether Defendants can communicate with the users of their software and provide updates says nothing about whether Defendants facilitate or enable the exchange of copyrighted files at issue in these cases," Wilson wrote.
If this decision stands, it would cut off a major line of attack for the RIAA. The music labels would no longer be able to shut down trading at a central point and would be forced to up their crusade against individual traders instead.
This decision paves the way for a more civilized approach to curbing illegal file trading. An FBI warning similar to those that precede movies could be shown at the start of every file-swapping session. Our suggestion would have the RIAA Chief Hilary Rosen deliver a brief sermon against file trading, as her image shrivels down to the size of a dot and then disappears.
This should serve as an ample deterrent against illegal file trading, while promoting the continued innovation and use of the technology for legitimate means. [They'll want to come round to your house to serve this warning - ed.] ®