Silicon Valley can breathe a huge sigh of relief. The Supreme Court of the United States really does understand how technology is changing...
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Silicon Valley can breathe a huge sigh of relief. The Supreme Court of the United States really does understand how technology is changing the world, and delivered two well-reasoned decisions last week in the closely watched Grokster and Brand X cases.
The Grokster decision holds two file-sharing companies liable for rampant Internet piracy, saying they can’t wrap themselves in the magic cloak of innovation to defend illegal behavior. And contrary to the valley’s worst fears, this ruling won’t discourage new technologies from moving forward.
The Brand X decision says companies that build high-speed Internet services don’t have to open their lines to competitors. While some may view this as a blow to small Internet service providers, the court’s ruling makes it more likely consumers in the long run will get service from additional networks.
Both decisions underline the importance of intellectual property, a fancy way of saying inventors in the Internet era have the right to profit from creative endeavors without pirates stealing their ideas.
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The Supreme Court decisions, on the surface, look pro-dinosaur. But dig a little deeper, and you can see the nine justices are also looking after the speedy little mammals.
Justice David Souter delivered a literate and informed majority opinion in the Grokster case. It revolves around peer-to-peer Internet file-swapping, specifically two services — Grokster and StreamCast Networks’ Morpheus — that existed almost entirely to profit from music piracy.
Technology companies were concerned that an overly broad ruling against Grokster and Morpheus would inhibit legitimate products just because they could potentially be used, in part, for illegal swapping. Even something as basic as the CD burner in a personal computer could create liabilities for the manufacturer if misused by consumers.
“The more artistic protection is favored, the more technological innovation may be discouraged,” Souter wrote. “The administration of copyright law is an exercise in managing the trade-off.”
Souter said a company selling a technology product or service should only be liable if it deliberately promotes copyright violation “as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps.”
This means the record labels can’t get judges to stop the sale of digital MP3 music players — as the industry once tried to do — just because MP3 players can be used to play back pirated music.
Brand X, the second ruling last Monday, relates to esoteric regulatory issues. Boiled down, the Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Federal Communications Commission that cable companies aren’t obligated to let competing Internet service providers have access to their networks.
Most parts of the nation have only two choices for broadband, a cable modem line or DSL from the local phone company. This cozy duopoly lacks sufficient incentive to improve service or cut prices for consumers.
But getting more competitors on the existing networks isn’t the answer. Instead, we need more networks.
Brand X is only the first step in a long process of change, with many issues that must still be resolved in favor of consumers rather than entrenched industry interests.
“Today’s decision makes the climb much steeper,” said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in a statement after the ruling. “But this country just has to find ways to promote innovation, enhance competition, protect the openness of the Internet and return the United States to a position of leadership in broadband penetration.”
The United States is sometimes faster to invent new technologies than to adopt them widely. But after a period of chaos and dispute, we often end up in a better place than other nations with a top-down approach. Last week’s rulings keep us moving along this contentious but worthwhile path.
Mike Langberg is a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News.