April 5, 2005

Studios, University Fight Battles Against Illegal File Sharing

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Last month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of MGM v. Grokster, the record industry’s latest attempt to control the uninhibited flow of illegally traded music files over the internet.

Meanwhile, University students continued the illegal exchange of some of the estimated 2.6 billion copyrighted files traded nation-wide each month.

Cornell students partake in file sharing through a variety of means, from the publicly available peer-to-peer (P2P) programs like KaZaA or Limewire, to the somewhat more exclusively offered services provided by websites like www.i2hub.com, that operate by using a program called Direct Connect. In either case, there is clear tension surrounding what constitutes “the appropriate use of protected intellectual property,” as Kent Hubbell, dean of students, said in the Cornell Chronicle last July.

At issue in Grokster is whether file sharing program makers can be held liable for secondary copyright infringement — that is, if KaZaA and similar services are responsible for the files exchanged through their programs. MGM, among others in the recording and movie industries, alleges that since the vast majority of information traded among users is illegal, Grokster and other companies are contributing to copyright violations.

Although a major Cornell direct connect hub was shut down after a bootleg video of the Cornell Jon Stewart performance showed up on it, another student, Jae Kwon ’05, restarted the file exchange room under a different name. Kwon said a “hub owner doesn’t know what files are traded between users.”

To counteract the exchange of illegal files, he said, he disconnects users whom he finds sharing copyrighted material.

In contrast to the dark image of file sharing services painted by attorneys for MGM — B. Verrilli, Jr., a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court, called Grokster “a gigantic machine that was built on infringement” — Kwon credited his hub as “fostering a sense of community among Cornell Resnet users.” Regardless of intent, though, Kwon said he is “protected by the Sony Betamax ruling, [a 1984 case at issue in Grokster] as well as the current Grokster v. MGM case.”

Just as the issues confronting the campus and the court were similar, so too were the opinions voiced. The root cause of file sharing programs like Direct Connect or Grokster, for instance, was attributed in both venues to a basic desire to escape payment. From the bench of the Supreme Court, Justice David Souter said, “I know perfectly well that I can buy a CD and put it on my iPod. But I also know if I can get music without buying it, I’m going to do so.”

Likewise, Rajiv Ravishankar ’07 said, “Given the price of CDs today, downloading music seems inevitable. For how easy it is to download a CD online … I don’t see the point in paying $15 for music.”

The simple fact that music is currently available for free might render the Supreme Court’s decision irrelevant: “regardless of the legality of [file sharing] right now, it is still perceived as illegal,” said Ben Arfa ’08. Since the assumption is that file trading is already an illegal procedure, the Supreme Court’s codification of that assumption will, in his mind, have little effect.

There are some indications that the Court’s decision might also seek to solve a problem that will ultimately work itself out. Because of recent innovations in legal software, and frequent problems with the software created by companies like Grokster, users may autonomously accept more legal solutions.

Josh Teitelbaum ’05 said that “the key is Napster and iTunes … you can charge people a small amount for each song, and people will use these programs if available. College students aren’t necessarily going to steal if they don’t have to.”

Like Arfa, Teitelbaum acknowledged that “what we’re doing is illegal,” but predicted a change now that legal — and relatively inexpensive — alternatives are available.

In addition, many students have expressed dissatisfaction with Grokster-like services, as these programs are frequently laced with viruses or secondary programs that generate pop-up ads.

“I used to download music from Limewire until my computer began to run more slowly. I was getting pop-ups every couple of minutes,” said Chelsea Hall ’08.

As the Court’s decision in MGM v. Grokster approaches and new techonology becomes available, it is clear that file exchangers are approaching a major crossroads in music downloading. The decision in the case will likely be handed down in June.

Archived article by Rob Fishman
Sun Contributor