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Grokster Ambivalence

28 Jun, 2005 By: Erik Gruenwedel

The U. S. Supreme Court's split vote on the Ten Commandments may have dominated Monday's headlines, but national lawmakers also weighed in on the Grokster decision that found Internet file-sharing services are not necessarily immune from copyright liability in the dissemination of music, movies and photos.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she was pleased the Court recognized the illegal downloading of music and movies as theft of intellectual property, and that those who foster this activity should be held accountable for encouraging illegal behavior.

While a reversed decision upholding two lower-court rulings would have likely triggered a sharp response by well-heeled entertainment lobbyists on Capitol Hill, experts said that both the House and Congress had already tentatively scheduled meetings prior to the ruling. That's because copyright law is a creature of statute law. If Congress doesn't like what the Supreme Court hands down, it is free to rewrite a ruling anyway it sees fit.

Whether anything actually happens is another matter.

Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), co-chairs of the Senate Commerce Committee, said they would further review the decision to consider its true impact on stemming digital piracy while promoting e-commerce and lawful Internet uses.

For example, Verizon Communications, which last year saw the Supreme Court refuse to consider record labels' claims that its Internet users were illegally downloading music, said it was encouraged by the Court's recognition to be “mindful of the need from trenching on regular commerce.”

Last year, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), co-chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee, unsuccessfully introduced legislation that would have held parties liable for intentional copyright infringement.

While the opening rounds of the Intentional Inducement of Copyright Infringement Act of 2004 revealed the lobbying clout of the entertainment industry — legal experts say subcommittees have always been partial to the entertainment industry as it gives them the vast majority of lobbying contributions — the bill died because a large portion of the tech sector objected.

Naturally, both Hatch and Leahy seemed appreciative of the Court's ruling.

“This decision means that companies can no longer, with a wink and a nod, absolve themselves from any responsibility for what their products do,” Leahy said. “Just as consumers bear a responsibility for using these products to illegally download files, the companies that fashion and promote these tools must share in that obligation.”

Hatch said the Court's ruling underscored the need to protect and encourage artistic and technological innovation, but he cautioned Congress to wait for a lower court's revision before responding.

“If it appears that U.S. industries, technological innovation or consumers are ultimately harmed by this decision, Congress should consider a legislative solution that appropriately balances consumer interests, innovation and intellectual property rights,” Hatch said.

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