Digital music heads to the courts

A U.S. Supreme Court peer-to-peer file sharing case, a Russian copyright loophole, and a potential second lawsuit for DeCSS programmer Jon Johansen -- what does it mean that this month's three most compelling digital music stories all touch on legal issues? Honestly, I have no idea.

I know this, though: Each one of those issues has the potential to change the course of digital music for years to come.

Is Grokster the new Betamax?

We'll find out the answer to that question later this year, when the Supreme Court hands down its decision in the MGM vs. Grokster case. Grokster is one of the many P-to-P networks that took the place of the original Napster, enabling many users to trade copies of movies and music. Perhaps you've heard of it.

Oral arguments were presented at the end of March in this high-profile digital copyright case. At issue is whether the developers of Grokster or other peer-to-peer networking programs can be held responsible for copyright infringement that occurs on those networks. Or, more simply, if a company builds a product that can be used to infringe copyrights, is that company in trouble?

Many observers think this case could have an impact similar to the Betamax ruling in 1984, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Sony was not liable for secondary copyright infringement, in part because the Betamax VCR had substantial noninfringing uses. Of course, that was back when mass producing copies of a movie required a wall full of VCRs and an hour or so to copy, so you can see why some observers believe that a new test is called for in this world of unlimited availability of perfect digital copies.

But devising such a test is problematic at best. The justices asked a lot of questions about the business model behind Grokster and Morpheus. But where does that leave a freeware P-to-P client? Can movie studios or record labels really argue that P-to-P networks lack substantial noninfringing uses when they could easily use digital rights management to seed those networks with tracks that would play three times, then offer an opportunity to buy the music?

In April's column, my colleague Anush Yegyazarian goes into greater detail about the legal issues involved. As Anush points out, this case isn't just about music and movie -- it's about how technology will be developed in the future.

Russian MP3s by the megabyte

The MGM vs. Grokster case may have a huge impact, but I've been continually impressed by the impact that a Russian digital audio store has had on my inbox. Lots of people have asked me about AllofMP3, a Russian site that offers to sell you almost any song you can imagine for 2 cents per megabyte.

AllofMP3, and a similar Spanish site called, both purport to use loopholes in the copyright systems of their countries to legally sell music at insane prices. Another Spanish site,, was shut down and later settled with the music industry for US$10 million.

But recently, AllofMP3 caught a break when a Russian district attorney declined to open a criminal investigation against the site on behalf of the IPFI, which represents the recording industry worldwide.

So does that mean it's legal to download all the cheap Russian MP3s you want? Probably not. Slate does a great job of answering frequently asked questions about this site. The bottom line? AllofMP3 doesn't own worldwide distribution rights to the songs it's selling.

Getting around Apple

Finally, Jon Johansen (famous as one of the authors of DeCSS, an app that lets you rip copy-protected DVDs) has released a new program called PyMusique that lets you buy DRM-free songs from Apple's ITunes Music Store. Apple modified its store to lock out the first version of PyMusique, but PyMusique has been tweaked to get around Apple's lockout.

More dueling code is likely, as Apple tries to keep ITunes Music Store tracks under control, and you can bet that Apple lawyers are polishing up their lawsuits at this very moment. It appears this fight may be headed to the Windows world as well, as programmers in Johansen's group report that they're close to circumventing the DRM at Napster's music store as well.

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Eric Dahl

PC World
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