Grokster sides trade blows

Accusations fly at industry conference

WASHINGTON–With less than two weeks to go before the curtain goes up on the Grokster case at the Supreme Court, the two sides traded accusations and near-insults at an industry conference here Wednesday.

Appearing on a panel with Consumer Electronics Assn. prexy Gary Shapiro, RIAA topper Mitch Bainwol accused the hardware rep of engaging in “ridiculous hyperbole” about the case.

“You keep saying we’re trying to kill technology when you know that’s ridiculous,” Bainwol said. “You know, the federal government filed a brief in this case and I think they’re a pretty good neutral observer. And they said we’re right and your wrong.”

Shapiro returned fire, accusing the studios and record companies of demanding a veto over future technological innovation.

“What you’re saying is that before any technology developer can do anything, they have to predict all the ways their technology could be used, and then think of how they could have designed it differently to prevent uses that might be infringing. That’s what it says in your (legal) brief.”

The heated remarks reflect how high passions are running as Hollywood and the technology industries prepare for the courtroom showdown.

Oral arguments in the case are slated for March 29, and a decision is likely by summer.

Legal experts both inside and outside the industry regard the case as the most important copyright question to reach the high court since the Betamax case in 1984.

In Betamax, the court ruled that technologies such as the VCR could not be banned even if some people used them to infringe copyrights.

In Grokster, the robes area being asked to decide whether the Betamax standard should apply to peer-to-peer file trading over the Internet.

On Wednesday, each side predicted dire consequences should the other side prevail.

“I don’t think this is just a Washington issue, or even just a Hollywood issue,” MPAA prexy Dan Glickman said. “This case really has to do with what has made this country the great liberal democracy that it is. I’m not saying we would lose that democracy if we lose on Grokster, but it would have very profound implications for our society’s ability to be culturally productive and innovative.”

HDNet CEO Mark Cuban was equally adamant.

“If Grokster loses we’re in deep shit,” the one-time software entrepreneur said. “I remember trading pictures on CompuServe in 1988. People were downloading music over what became AOL. If the rules they’re asking for today had been in place then, AOL would have been decimated before it began.”

One point on which the two sides agree is that the Supreme Court is unlikely to fully settle the matter, whatever it decides.

Both sides are already working Capitol Hill to line up support for legislation to undo whatever the court does should the decision go against them.

On Wednesday, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) introduced a bill that would write the Betamax standard into law as well as expand consumers’ rights to make fair use of encrypted programming.

Boucher bill is co-sponsor by House Commerce and Energy Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), insuring it will at least get a hearing.

In the Senate, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is expected to reintroduce his Induce Act should the court side with Grokster.