When Grokster Walked the Earth

Among the many ways that copyrighted texts are misappropriated, none is more prevalent than peer-to-peer file sharing.  Nor is any more pernicious, for it flagrantly flouts the law without appearing to break it.

Though P2P (as it is called) started in the music and video businesses it has spread to e-books.  While pundits scoff at the notion that the e-book industry could be plundered as thoroughly as the music industry, the extent of the outlawry is staggering and is the Number 1 threat to the growth of this nascent field. (See A Bootleg E-Book Bazaar Operates in Plain Sight)

The concept of peer-to-peer file sharing was developed around the turn of the 20th century by a number of brilliant programmers determined to get their hands on the treasure of music that had become abundantly available when the record industry went digital.  The Internet offered a powerful tool for sharing musical files if only a path around copyright laws could be found. Perhaps these enterprising people were inspired by head shop owners who sold the wherewithal for drug use but not the drugs themselves. There was nothing technically illegal about selling cigarette papers, roach clips, bongs and the like. By the same token, a computer through which friends exchanged files should not be considered unlawful, they contended.

By the end of the 1990s the music industry was being ravaged by file-sharing, fueled in some measure by popular anger against a recording industry that was thought to be gouging customers.

The principle is simple: a computer is used as a conduit for persons to share music, video, or texts with each other free of charge.  The downloaders cannot be said to be infringing because they are for all intents and purposes friends sharing content they like, and there is nothing illegal about that.  Nor can the computer owner be said to infringe because he does not possess the property; he is simply introducing friends or managing a channel between them and facilitating their sharing activities.

The forerunner of the file sharing movement was Napster, and for several years it seemed unstoppable. According to Wikipedia, “Napster users relayed search requests through a central server owned by Napster (the Napster central server also maintained an index of users and files available on the network at any given time).”

The centralized computer was Napster’s Achilles heel, because it meant that the company was in a position to block access or remove infringing material when a copyright owner complained. When it would not or could not do so under court pressure, the company went out of business.

The creators of Napster’s successor, Grokster, found a way around the problem of a centralized repository for files and user information. In a 2003 article by Chris Sprigman, the scheme was described thus:

When a user boots the software, his computer is directed to sign on to a “root supernode” …which then directs the user to a “local supernode.” The “local supernode” is some user’s computer, which has been temporarily designated to route file-sharing requests among a large number of other users. (A particular user’s computer may function as a local supernode one day but not the next; the process is largely invisible to the user).

Suppose a Grokster user requests a certain file – it could be a song, a movie clip, a video game, or an e-book. His search request is relayed among a large number of local supernodes and on to individual users. Once the requested file is found, it is transferred directly between the users.

Subsequent programmers engineered the user-to-user concept until it was almost impossible to find a computer, or operator, responsible for disseminating unauthorized files. Nevertheless, a lawsuit was brought against Grokster by MGM Studios. The battle that raged through the court system is well worth reading in Wikpedia’s account, especially because lower courts and appeals supported Grokster.  Finally the US Supreme Court ruled against Grokster and the company ceased operations.

Today if you visit the company’s website you will find the following message:

The United States Supreme Court unanimously confirmed that using this service to trade copyrighted material is illegal. Copying copyrighted motion picture and music files
using unauthorized peer-to-peer services is illegal and is prosecuted by copyright owners.

There are legal services for downloading music and movies. This service is not one of them.

Napster and Grokster were driven out of business because angry rights holders took legal action and had the time, money and determination to press their case to the limit.  Those cases dealt with music and videos.  No parallel case has yet been brought against book infringers. Should one be?

Richard Curtis

For a full archive of E-Reads postings about piracy, visit Pirate Central.

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