Ah, I love a good play on words… and I hate it when fools are in charge of very important things. In this case I’m referring to the recent United States Supreme Court decision regarding P2P file sharing services. This ruling makes a mockery of all sorts of common sense. Where to begin…
Personal Responsibility is for Chumps
I think the biggest lesson to be learned from this case is that the whole concept of competent individuals being responsible for their own actions is being thrown out the window and cheered by the masses as it splatters on the sidewalk below. This case hinges on the idea that makers of a product with a legitimate legal use should not be held liable for illegal uses of that product. It should have been open and shut. Our society has always protected companies from liability for an individual’s misuse of their products. Gun manufacturers are not liable when a hunter finds his wife cheating on him and shoots her or if he starts to pick people of on freeways. Ford and GM don’t get sued when some jerk decides to run over people for sport in a parking lot. Farmer Jack isn’t liable if I throw coconuts from their produce section at people’s heads. All of these examples are clearly the misuse of a product and only the individuals who perform the illegal actions should be held responsible.
However, some how, some way, when people decide to steal music in violation of copyright laws the makers of the software they use are liable. That is simply stupid. We already went over all of this two decades ago in the Sony Betamax decision when the Court wrote a well reasoned ruling that came down on the side of personal responsibility and common sense. For an excellent comparison of the two cases please visit the EFF website. The recent Court ruling is a wholesale abdication of an individual’s legal responsibility for their own actions.
America is Becoming an Economic Backwater
We’ve been losing our manufacturing jobs for years and we’ve survived through invention and innovation. We’ve come up with new ideas and promoted technological excellence. We’ve brought the world Google, Yahoo!, Adobe, Macromedia, Apple, 37signals, and countless other brilliant companies that are leaders in technological innovation. So how do respond to the geeks who are breathing life into our stagnating economy? We break with years of legal precedent and common sense and sue the living hell out of them for what other people do with the products they make.
Assuming the European Union doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot with software patents (see Richard Stallman’s explanation on why software patents are absurd for more on that) we may soon see America lose it’s last remaining economic edge as our geeks all move to England or Norway in order to avoid lawsuits and prison time for writing code.
There are tons of legitimate uses for P2P technologies and we’re really still trying to figure out all of the ways we can use distributed file sharing to save money, improve communication, create new distribution channels and more. They are already used extensively to distribute free open source software, particularly operating systems such as Linux. Mike Davidson proposed a model for distributing commercial software through the same networks. Microsoft is researching and developing a P2P system similar to bittorrent called Avalanche.
The Supreme Court bungled this ruling, following the lead of Congressional bungling in recent years. Instead of adding supporting the well reasoned 1984 Betamax ruling the Court has pushed America a little further into economic irrelevance. It’s a terrible thing for America and a huge win for the rest of the world as we stymie ourselves and open up opportunities for programmers and inventors everywhere else to leave us in the dust.