In about a week and a half, a group of lawyers will stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and argue about the legal responsibilities of peer-to-peer networks in a case that may well outlive the company that inspired it, “Grokster.”
To the technically minded, the whole debate sounds silly and beside the point. To paraphrase an activist slogan, “Peer-to-peer is here. Get over it.” To this crowd, the lawsuits—brought by MGM and the other record companies—are just more evidence of greedy corporations refusing to accept a new world.
Thats an overstatement. But its not stretching it too much to say that for the record companies and Hollywood this case is make or break. Grokster will help Hollywood and the record business map out the path theyll follow in Washington when it comes time to craft copyright and telecom legislation.
So far, the industries have been playing a delay game, putting off reckoning with lawmakers—who ultimately represent consumers—as long as possible. The Supreme Court ruling is going to change that strategy, too.
The delay game is getting a bit thin anyway. A look at Silicon Valley author J.D. Lasicas Darknet: Hollywoods War Against the Digital Generation offers plenty of examples of just how—dependent isnt too strong a word—we are all becoming on the kinds of digital technology that MGM v. Grokster hopes to retrain.
In his book, to be published in May, Lasica profiles a series of innovators and their inventions, and he casts a jaundiced eye over the attempts that Hollywood is making to restrict the use of new technology. Lasica feels strongly that theres a war underway between consumers and copyright holders, between Hollywood and the folks who buy movie tickets.
Thats a little bit of a simplification; Hollywoods a business like any other and its just doing what comes naturally. But it is fair to say that most people in the recording and movie business dont understand the multilayered effects possible with online digital networks. They think of themselves as creators and all of rest of us as an audience.
Thats inaccurate, says Lasica. “More and more of us are taking up the tools of the digital generation,” Lasica says. “The Grokster case is a great example of what the mainstream media keep missing. Its not just about piracy, its about people using digital technologies in the way people want to use them.”
Lasicas right on both counts. Its a temporary state of affairs, as Lasicas book—with its biker “Internet TV” broadcasters, its geeky engineers, its earnest clergymen—makes clear simply by talking with normal folks about how technology has entered their lives.
Being a Silicon Valley guy, Lasica isnt letting all this go with the book. Hes teamed up with Macromedia cofounder Marc Cantor on something called OurMedia.org which will go public today.
“This is another way people are going to be able to use their networks,” says Lasica.
Calling itself the “global homepage for grassroots media,” OurMedia.org aims to be a place for people to swap and share what theyve created. Think of it as blogging with video and audio, only a little better organized than the mishmash of (mostly text-only) sites up today.
On one level, OurMedia is a community site, the sort of thing that a Hollywood studio person or a talented recording engineer might dismiss as amateurish.
But think about what its going to look like when someone really creative gets their hands around a digital camera or an MP3 player and then distributes their work to that community. Think about what a filmmaker rejected by the studios or other established outlets might do with OurMedias savvy audience.
The network is no longer a passive signal from a lone tower on a hill beaming images and sound down to millions of eyes and ears. Its a two-way street between talkers and listeners, watchers and show-offs, creators and the more creative. Thats not something that will be argued in the Supreme Court.
But it is an argument that consumers—of all kinds of media—can well have with their congressmen and senators. And that—in the end—may be Groksters greatest legacy.