Legal downloading is here to stay
While the ruling affects many companies, music downloading has a future.
By TIMOTHY McNULTY
The Supreme Court's decision saying Internet file-sharing companies can be sued for encouraging illegal downloading was bad news for file-sharing companies. However, that does not mean it was bad for the rest of the world, including those who use their computers to download music, movies, games and other files.
While the smoke is still clearing from the decision, and the decisions likely to follow, this much is clear: File-sharing is here to stay.
Here is a look at some of the questions prompted by the court decision, and its impact on entertainment fans and consumers.
Q. Can I still download music?
A. Yes, at plenty of Web sites, some requiring payments and some free.
Pay sites that have licensing agreements with the entertainment industry -- such as iTunes, Rhapsody, Yahoo Music and others -- are panting for your business. Rhapsody, in fact, took out a full-page ad in several national newspapers immediately after the ruling welcoming the court's decision.
Sites battling the entertainment industry such as Grokster and Morpheus -- the ones targeted in Monday's decision -- face a cloudier future. While the Supreme Court sent their case back to a federal appeals court for trial, they are almost sure to lose. They and other file-sharing services that allow for sharing of copyrighted files -- and make money off it, through advertising and other means -- may fold or have to change their sites drastically.
Q. Can I get in trouble for pirated music tracks that I downloaded before the court's ruling?
A. The Recording Industry Association of America has very publicly sued people, especially college students, for illegal downloading, but your chances of getting busted actually are relatively small. That said, though, you have been warned: Legal haggling and threats over downloading are not going away.
Q. Technology advocates also warn that my iPod, which I use to play back some of those pirated songs, may be in trouble, too. Is that true?
A. Probably not. Apple plays ball with the entertainment industry -- its iTunes software, with 99-cent songs, is a huge hit -- and will likely be safe. The question is if development of future technologies -- whatever makes your iPod unnecessary someday, the same way the iPod relegated your portable CD player to a desk drawer -- will be dampened by the court's decision.
Q. Why would that happen?
A. File-sharing advocates say researchers will shy away from developing new technologies for fear that others could use it illegally (as Grokster users did with its software), opening the researchers to lawsuits. Still, the court seemed concerned with giving an appropriate "safe harbor" to technological development -- as long as developers do not "induce" illegal behavior and their technology has substantial legitimate uses.
Q. What happens next?
A. The case goes back to a federal appeals court, in a light very favorable to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and other industry titans that challenged the file-sharing services.
Beyond the fate of Grokster and related services, computer activists -- joined by consumer advocates and some small-business groups -- say the court decision was too vague and will allow a tornado of lawsuits against small technology businesses. Congress could head off litigation by rewriting copyright laws. However, that would be politically touchy; it would pit competing business interests, and campaign contributors, against each other.