Today is the day that the Supreme Court will hear the Grokster case, where the massed forces of the entertainment industry attempt to prove that companies that offer online file-sharing systems are responsible for acts of copyright infringement committed by the people that use those systems.
One of the possible outcomes of this case is the overturning of the 1984 Betamax decision, where the Court held that companies are not liable of contributory infringement if the technology has substantial non-infringing uses. That was the landmark case that made VCRs legal for purchase in the US.
The EFF has been running a series on their website called Countdown to Grokster, where they feature devices that could’ve been illegal if the Betamax case had gone the other way – the list includes the Xerox machine, the CD burner, TCP/IP, Photoshop, and others.
There are lots of good resources about the case on the EFF site, including the all of the amicus briefs filed on behalf of both sides. Two of our UW faculty have signed on briefs on behalf of the respondent (the file sharing companies). Those two are Tom Anderson in Computer Science and Jane Winn in the Law School.
Given the current tenor of the political climate and makeup of the Court, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for intellectual depth and enlightenment during this process…let’s hope I’m wrong.