WASHINGTON — Arguing that online piracy is rampant and should be punished, the movie and music industries are unquestionably right. Ditto their claim that peer-to-peer software poses an enormous threat to revenues and is used almost exclusively to rip off copyright owners.
But being right may be irrevelant, even if — no, make that particularly if — Hollywood and the music labels win everything they’re seeking in their mother-of-all-infringement-lawsuits against P2P purveyors Grokster and their ilk.
Judging by some of the briefs the studios and their supporters have filed with the Supreme Court ahead of oral arguments — which are scheduled to begin March 29 — the very future of the creative industry hangs in the balance.
But imagine the court actually sides with the studios, and P2P use becomes severely limited by law. Victory!
But good luck trying to enforce the ruling.
Industry execs acknowledge that a total win will not put an end to online piracy, any more than doubling the federal budget to fight illegal drugs would make that problem disappear. Rather, they say a court victory would establish a specific deterrent.
But the problem would still continue, with P2P operations moving abroad, where concerns about copyright infringement don’t rank anywhere near as high as they do Stateside.
Some countries still remember that from the 19th century until the early 20th, the biggest intellectual property thief in the world was the U.S., a fact that doesn’t make them rush to send out the cops to round up even the usual suspects.
And it still leaves the problem of finding a viable way for studios and labels to make money from technology while safeguarding their content from piracy.
The industry claims to have championed previous new technologies, such as the DVD, but as far back as the player piano, the media biz has initially tried to stop, stall or control every new device, saying it threatened their very existence.
Those technologies arrived before the advent of the Internet, an unprecedented means for vast, cheap distribution that no doubt poses an unprecedented threat. But the Internet is also a potentially profitable tool for the industry, if execs could just figure out how to harness or at least exploit it the way, say, legit P2P developers have.
“How do you compete with free?” many industry execs lament — without a trace of irony as they reach for their $3 bottle of water.
If its briefs in the Supreme Court case are any indication, the industry just may be moving toward something like this: Developing, with a vital assist from the Supreme Court, a big new legal club they can shake at thieves they can’t see or for the most part catch in a domain they can’t control, but think they do.
It’s also possible the court will render a split decision, granting and denying something to each side.
But this much is certain: Even a partial victory will encourage the industry to sit still as the 21st century continues to run cyber-circles around it.