We'll soon find out whether the battle against Internet piracy is as simple as flipping the "off" switch. Grokster, the file-swapping service...

Share story

We’ll soon find out whether the battle against Internet piracy is as simple as flipping the “off” switch.

Grokster, the file-swapping service, whose name became synonymous with Hollywood’s high-stakes showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court, agreed last week to shut down its computers and stop giving away new versions of its software.

The company may be history, but its file-sharing software lives on in millions of computers that have downloaded it over the years. Long after Grokster and other shuttered file-sharing services are but a legal footnote, people could continue to illegally swap copyrighted music, video and software.

Services like Grokster and Kazaa have long insisted their file-sharing networks operate autonomously and would continue to thrive even if the entertainment police shut them down, say, tomorrow.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Grokster will become the test case. It will reveal whether the file-sharing networks degrade over time and lose their appeal or remain a thriving underground pirate bazaar. This will have profound implications for the entertainment industry.

While still heady from its recent victories, Hollywood is moving into uncharted waters.

When the courts shuttered Napster, the pioneering file-swapping service simply went dark. That’s because Napster operated the computers that kept track of all the music exchanged online and held the network together.

The new generation of file-swapping services are decentralized.

Eventually, these networks would deteriorate without new versions of the software that speed downloads and offer other improvements. But it could be years before we know what happens when networks like Grokster go belly up.

Will people abandon it, when the software is no longer upgraded? Will they assume it no longer works and hunt for something else?

Grokster, in agreeing to pay $50 million to settle a nearly 4-year-old copyright infringement lawsuit, is gambling that it can snatch victory from the mouth of defeat.

Anyone who continues to use Grokster to download copyrighted music, movies or software will see anti-piracy warnings designed to discourage such conduct.

But Grokster is betting these messages will be treated with the same disregard as the FBI warnings on DVD movies. And that the million or so people who still use Grokster will hang around long enough to be enticed to join a new, label-sanctioned service called Mashboxx.

Grokster’s former president, Wayne Rosso, reportedly plans to acquire Grokster for the opportunity to convert its regular users to his new venture, Mashboxx. It will offer free samples of popular music, even as it entices people to pay for better-fidelity versions of the songs.

Indeed, the Grokster Web site promises a “safe and legal” version will be available soon.

The success of the entertainment industry may hinge on such experiments that don’t merely seek to turn off peer-to-peer, but to turn on consumers.

Dawn Chmielewski is a reporter and columnist with the San Jose Mercury News.