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Why punish the technology?

Instead of learning lessons from Napster, the war against file-swapping technology is taking a dangerous turn.

"Grokster and StreamCast are simply digital-age versions of the record sellers or dance-hall operators that, when facing liability for failing to supervise or control the infringement from which they directly profit, seek to evade that liability by leaving the dirty work to others."

Hard words but entertainment lawyers are paid to be nasty. The legal brief was submitted in advance of a critical March court date when they will again try to get the court to shut down digital file-swapping.

But in its zeal to put the likes of Grokster and StreamCast out of business, the entertainment industry's challenge might lead to a change in the law that renders potentially important technologies stillborn.

In 1984 the Supreme Court determined that Sony was not liable for copyright infringement just because its Betamax video tape recorder might be used by people engaged in infringing activities. The content industry has been itching to knock down this decision ever since. Now it has another chance.

Here's the problem: The law can be a blunt instrument. What's to avert an overly-broad ruling that inadvertently prevents a future technology from ever coming into being? Most of the songs that ran on the early crop of MP3 players came from illegal music downloads. If technology that flourished because of customers' illegal activity had been banned in 1997, the MP3 player industry would not exist today. Dunno why the mainstream business press hasn't yet jumped on this story. This promises to have huge impact.