Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Will Betamax Be Buried?

In 1984, the Motion Picture Association of America went to war with innovators, suing Sony over the sale of the video-tape-recording "Betamax" machine. This was due to the fact that the machines were capable of, and were being used to, illegally pirate copyrighted material.

The Supreme Court said that, because the videotape recorders were capable of substantial non-infringing uses (e.g., home-movies, recording televisions shows for later viewing, or "time shifting," etc.) the makers of those machines were not liable for copyright infringement.

Well, since then, the Betamax has gone the way of the dinosaur, but the continuing consumer demand for newer, better, faster, and more efficient ways to stock their video and music libraries has recently exploded. It began anew in 2001, when the 9th Circuit heard the Napster case, and muddied the waters significantly.

Still, with the Betamax ruling in full force, technology marches on. Armed with the Supreme Court's language, file-sharing megafirms re-vamped their formats to allow not only the sharing of music files, but also photos, texts, and video files. These re-workings significantly broadened the "substantial non-infringing uses" engaged in by users of the sites.

"Not good enough," say the Recording Industry Artists of America (among many others).

The Supreme Court will revisit the Betamax case when it issues an opinion in the case of MGM Studios v. Grokster.

My opinion:

While I believe the Supreme Court will, through its well-known artful torture of the English language, find in favor of the price-gougers over the file-stealers (in a lesser-of-evils dance); I certainly hope that they do not. Established precedent (Betamax) says that if a technology is capable of the promulgation of legal materials, the creators of that technology will not be held liable for those who use it illegally.

It's a wonderful thing, really. I don't condone the practice of indiscriminately downloading tens, hundreds, even thousands of copyrighted files without paying the owners. Still, I don't think the problem's going to go away. Despite the proliferation and popularity of the new pay-per-download sites (like the reconditioned Napster), I think people are simply tired of paying outrageous prices for music and movies, just so that J-Lo can have a new Escalade every other day.

It should have served notice on the music/movie-makers long ago. The market will dictate prices, and when you engage in serious price-fixing, the public isn't going to stand for it. This hole was not dug by devious computer nerds, hoping to cash-in on advertising revenue.

It was dug by money-hungry corporations who have no respect for those who give them their money.

I know, I know. If Grokster gets off the hook, the music and movie industry will simply go after grandma again. I'd rather see that happen, though, than a Supreme Court mandated stranglehold on the free exchange of ideas.

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