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MGM vs. Grokster

The case of the content owners vs. the file-sharing software companies is all over the news. Given that I make my livelihood as a publisher, you might be surprised to hear that I’m pulling for Grokster on this one…

I’m a big believer in technology and innovations resulting from new technologies. I think it would be a huge mistake to create unnecessary barriers that might prevent the next giant leap forward in content distribution. By the way, it’s interesting to see Sony on the content side of the table, fighting against innovative distribution technologies – weren’t they on the opposite side in the ‘80’s, claiming that their VCR’s didn’t infringe on copyrights?

Although I’m not a gun advocate, I agree with the old saying that “guns don’t kill …people kill.” The same logic applies to this debate: Software companies don’t steal intellectual property…people steal intellectual property.

It’s one thing to install a file-sharing program on your computer. It’s another thing when you elect to use that software to cross the line and illegally share copyrighted material. Yes, I realize that most of the download and file exchange activity going on these days involves copyrighted material. If you’re downloading or exchanging copyrighted material without permission you’re breaking the law, period. Don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you. Anyone doing this is as guilty as the guy that robs the local liquor store.

So how do we fix the current problem? To start off with, let the software companies create their programs. They’re not the problem. Secondly, the content companies need to continue prosecuting anyone they find illegally redistributing their content. They need to be more visible with their efforts, though. People aren’t going to stop doing this until they feel there’s a high likelihood they’ll get caught and fined.

How about reversing the power of the peer-to-peer networks? When one person gets busted for illegal downloads, offer them reduced fines for ratting out other thieves, anonymously, of course. Publicize this program so that the cheaters don’t know whether they’ll get caught by the authorities or turned in by their friends.

Where do you stand on this issue?



Wow, that's very Red Scare-ish to me (or, hell, more akin to the drug trade "Show me your dealer and you get off.").

I agree that it is not the file sharing companies' fault, it is the consumer's. However, I think the reselling of the same material over and over (DVD triple-dipping, vinyl-cassette-cd-CD-Reissue is bad enough) has gotten a lot of people fed up.

The odd question of: "I bought this Pink Floyd record on vinyl in the 70's, why do I have to pay for it again?" is tough to answer. The question is: How long does your right to copy and backup works that you've already purchased last?

It would be illegal for that person to find and download the album off eDonkey or whatever, yet it remains legal for the to rip the sound off the vinyl into digital format. These fringe cases are what confuse people and lead to bad behavior that isn't regarded to as such by Soccer Moms of the world.

As for me, I agree with you 100%, but I also see the gray area where good people get in trouble for what they see as a legal use of prior purchased works.

Steve Hayes

I tend to agree that throwing out the baby with the bathwater is not the answer. What bugs me, though, is that the owners of content aren't racing to find ways to provide what people want, in this case inexpensive and convenient access to the content, instead focusing on attacking those breaking the law and trying to preserve an existing system of delivery that might be showing its age.

I really don't understand why movie studios and television networks aren't looking at the Apple Music Store and its various competitors and saying "how can we do that." Granted music was a dying industry and electronic transfer breathed new life into it. Movies, television, and such aren't in the same dire straits. Yet people are showing a willingness to buy digital entertainment content online if the price is right. Though film and video files are much larger than music, it seems the spread of broadband and the application of a BitTorrent type of delivery could be applied to overcome individual stream limitations.

Studios can play the litigation game all they want. Hopefully there's a smart studio head out there looking at the music business and saying "how can we do that and add to our theatrical and dvd sales?" I know based on my willingness to buy music for iTunes, i'd probably do the same if iTheater ever came out.


I agree Steve. It's like the late 90's early 00's, when Napster was everywhere and no one had "any idea" as to how to make digital music work. Now iTunes is a force to be reckoned with.

Someone will finally take the step to put a popular show online (for example, I'd gladly pay $1 for last night's Lost that I missed) and make out like gangbusters. The rest will be history.

But until then...we deal with Jack Valenti-type tactics (yes, even if he isn't in charge of the MPAA any longer).

Joe Wikert

Hi Evan. Yes, in fact I modeled that idea after other law enforcement techniques. It’s not limited to the drug trade though. How many times have you heard about a prosecutor working out a deal with someone in order to get more information on other potential criminals? It seems like a pretty common practice.

I agree that we should be able to pull down MP3’s of songs we already paid for on vinyl, cassette, etc. I suppose if all you were doing was downloading songs you can prove you already own it wouldn’t be a problem. But if someone is participating in a p2p service, they’re also offering all their songs for anyone else to download, whether all the other members can prove rightful ownership or not. That’s a problem.

Steve, excellent points. You do have to wonder how much of an investment the content companies are making in new technologies…probably not much. Actually, I’m getting kind of tired of the whole iPod/MP3 player platform. I’ve got my eyes on the XM Satellite Radio MyFi device. I love it that you can get 130+ channels, including all the baseball games I can possibly handle. Plus, it’s able to record up to 5 hours of programming, so you can still use it on a cross-country plane ride. Very cool, but also a bit too pricey ($350).

Chris Webb

I believe many of you are right on several points. The way this problem gets solved is for media companies - including publishers - to embrace the changes in technology as they relate to content. iTunes music store is a great example of a company giving people what hey want - a simple way to download and pay for great content. Even though we will always likely have some degree of piracy going on, I believe that given an opportunity to purchase content for a reasonable price in the format they want it in, consumers will still purchase content legally.

Evan, I think your Pink Floyd argument is just a little off in that the difference is in the quality of content (LP vs CD quality or higher digital.) Granted you could rip the LP into digital format, but the quality would still be LP. I think a listener should pay for the higher quality audio in this case.

Joe, you need a TiVo so you don't miss anymore lost episodes. But for now, there are a few products that utilize RSS and BitTorrent to do basically the same thing. Imagine if the media companies bought into something like that, and as Steve suggests utilized BitTorrent or similar technologies and allowed you to "subscribe" to the "digital edition" of Lost for a price that you deemed reasonable? For the media companies this might also open up new opportunities for new revenue streams in digital content, or even new interactive, immersive experiences by combining the digital show with online content.

Imagine the possibilities if the RIAA and MPAA spent as much time and money in R&D for new digital distributions and content as they did suing teenagers.

Brad Hill

Sorry to be a sourpuss, but iTMS is not the answer in music. In fact, the service is a big part of the long-range problem. iTMS merely puts a broken business model in a shiny new channel. Every forecast I've seen projects no long-term business prospect in the a-la-carte model, in which the product increment is still too large and overpriced, and for which the content providers still charge analog rates--and wish to raise the them! iTMS does not address a digital, on-demand world, in which content is far more granular than 99-cent songs. The service is regressive on that count, and by its unrepentant tethering to sanctioned playback devices, which flagrantly destroys consumer value to an unprecedented degree.

I know how popular iTMS is, and am accustomed to flabbergasted scorn when I talk like this [smile]. But the new world which loomed gleaming on the horizon when MP3 and Winamp first started the ball rolling in 1997-1998 has been reduced to a gray, dismal, plodding, nearsighted reality by Steve Jobs's political maneuvers. The true promise of digital music is universal access, universal transfer, and universal playback of the entire recorded oeuvre. That does NOT mean music free of charge--and the lack of imagination on that point is what has landed us in this constrained iTMS-dominated world of incompatible formats and store-specific hardware.

As to book content, the industry is not subject to the same copying risks as music, sparing publishers from having to think urgently about these issues. But, oh, how I wish the vision of digital music circa 1998 could infect the publishing world, and that my books would be treated more like a liquid pool of informative bits than thickly coalesced product globs bartered in one-off incidents of costly money exchange. My knowledge would last longer in the marketplace, and I would get a gigantically larger audience, I believe.

Bring on the flames [smile]. This is my favorite topic, and I've enjoyed all the comments.

Chris Webb


I guess when we (I) talk about iTMS in this context we (I) tend to oversimplify it a bit. I agree with you that it is not the best business model, and their DRM "feature" stinks. But my point is that here is a delivery method for digital content - flawed as it is - that people like and will pay to use if presented with the opportunity.

My point to content providers is "give 'em what they want"...

Steve Hayes

I hear your point, Brad. I wish my little iPod could easily access all the sites. Granted, with a little work I can make any digital file work on there -- but who wants to do a little work? If I'm going to pay for the file, I'd like universal usage. But, thus far I'm not too disappointed with Apple Music Store. I still think the winner in the digital music race will be the seller that secures the Beatles entire catalog first.

Joe -- I've not used it yet, but everyone I know who has satellite radio RAVES about it. XM users love XM and Sirius users love Sirus and both sides eye the competition with mistrust. It's a decision you can't go wrong with. From my world view, I like the fact that XM does a lot to support indie artists, but they're also backed by ClearChannel which is something of a Satan in the music world.

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