Greased property: File-Swapping Online Gets a Boost from a U.S. Judge By Terrell Ward Bynum

Information and communication technology (ICT) is so powerful and so flexible that it enables people to do all kinds of things that could not have been done before. Because they were not previously done, the question arises whether it is ethical to do them and what the rules and limitations should be. (James Moor, in his 1985 article “What Is Computer Ethics?” called this sort of problem a “policy vacuum.”)

In San Francisco recently, a US District Judge, Stephen Wilson, issued a potentially momentous ruling about Internet file-swapping that uses software called “Grokster” and “Morpheus.” (The ruling does not directly affect a similar program called “KaZaA.”) Judge Wilson’s ruling fills a huge policy vacuum (at least for the moment, until an appeals court can decide) which has generated a “war” between the music and movie industry on the one hand and their customers on the other hand (especially college students). Ever since Napster enabled millions of people to swap MP3 music files online, the music and film industries have been on the war path against those who would enable free sharing of music, video and film on the Internet – turning them into a kind of “greased property” that slips easily into many computers across the Internet.

For a couple of years, the music and film industry had major successes, convincing the US government to pass strict laws limiting file-swapping online. They also scored a huge victory when a US district judge ruled that Napster violated copyright laws by enabling people to illegally share copyrighted music. Napster was essentially put out of business.

Judge Wilson’s recent ruling about Grokster and Morpheus, however, clearly distinguished these file-sharing programs from Napster. These later programs, the judge said, were essentially no different from videotape recorders, which also permit people to make their own copies. There are many legitimate uses for file-sharing software, like swapping uncopyrighted works or personal files. The judge ruled that the makers of Grokster and Morpheus are not responsible if some people use their product for illegal purposes. Just as knives and videotape machines can be used illegally, but their makers are not held responsible, so the same applies to Grokster and Morpheus.
Critics of the judge’s ruling say that it should be repealed, because it poses a threat to the profitability of music and film companies. Defenders of the ruling, on the other hand, claim that the music and film industries are trying to cling to an old fashioned 20th century business model, which ought to be replaced with a new business model based upon broadband Internet access for millions of potential customers.

Many policy vacuums generated by the possibility of “greased property” remain to be filled!

(See the New York Times, April 26th, 2003, “Entertainment Industry Loses in Web Case”)