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To read comments to this article, go here
Grokster Loses
Monday, June 27 2005 @ 01:02 PM EDT

Here's the decision [PDF] from the Supreme Court. 9-0. Total loss for Grokster. But on quick reading, I'd say Sony survives for now. On page 22 the court, however, says they will "leave further consideration of the Sony rule for a day when that may be required." That sounds ominous, and I think we have EFF to thank that it wasn't worse this time. Note footnote 12:

Of course, in the absence of other evidence of intent, a court would be unable to find contributory infringement liability merely based on a failure to take affirmative steps to prevent infringement, if the device otherwise was capable of substantial noninfringing uses. Such a holding would tread too close to the Sony close harbor.

The justices just felt that advertising and instructing users in how to use the software, profiting from the infringement, and deliberately attracting "users with a mind to infringe", as they put it, from the former "notorious Napster" created facts in evidence that *these* respondents were guilty as charged, so to speak, and knew what they were doing and did it deliberately. Here's the key sentence:

"We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promotion its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.

It could have been a lot worse.

Unless you are Grokster or Streamcast. The summary judgment they won is overturned, so now the case goes back to the lower court.

But here is the part Hollywood needs to focus on:

The advantage of peer-to-peer networks over information networks of other types shows up in their substantial and growing popularity. Because they need no central computer server to mediate the exchange of information or files among users, the high-bandwidth communications capacity for a server may be dispensed with, and the need for costly server storage space is eliminated. Since copies of a file (particularly a popular one) are available on many users' computers, file requests and retrievals may be faster than on other types of networks, and since file exchanges do not travel through a server, communications can take place between any computers that remain connected to the network without risk that a glitch in the server will disable the network in its entirety. Given these benefits in security, cost, and efficiency, peer-to-peer networks are employeed to store and distribute electronic files by universities, government agencies, corporations, and libraries, among others.

In short, the Supreme Court understands that P2P is here to stay. Why? Because it works better than anything that came before it, as I wrote the first time I wrote about Grokster. There is no way to kill a better mousetrap, once people know it exists. Why the music business can't understand that simple truth and figure out a way to use this power is the puzzlement and a problem the Supreme Court didn't fix.

Here's the exact wording on Sony:

Because Sony did not displace other theories of secondary liability, and because we find below that it was error to grant summary judgment to the companies on MGM's inducement claim, we do not revisit Sony further, as MGM requests, to add a more quantified description of the point of balance between protection and commerce when liability rests solely on distribution with knowledge that unlawful use will occur. It is enough to note that the Ninth Circuit's judgment rested on an erroneous understanding of Sony and to leave further consideration of the Sony rule for a day when that may be required.

Here is the syllabus of the decision. It tells you the highlights. The actual decision, with all the details, follows it in the PDF, followed by the concurring opinions. To get the full flavor, you need to read it all, which you can do from the PDF or if you prefer text, we have the decision in full as text in the next article, including the concurring opinions.

*********************************

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER STUDIOS INC. ET AL., v.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR
THE NINTH CIRCUIT

No. 04-480. Argued March 29, 2005 -- Decided June 27, 2005.

Respondent companies distribute free software that allows computer users to share electronic files through peer-to-peer networks, so called because the computers communicate directly with each other, not through central servers. Although such networks can be used to share any type of digital file, recipients of respondents' software have mostlly used them to share copyrighted music and video files without authorization. Seeking damages and an injunction, a group of movie studios and other copyright holders (hereinafter MGM) sued respondents for their users' copyright infringements, alleging that respondents knowingly and intentionally distributed their software to enable users to infringe copyrighted works in violation of the Copyright Act.

Discovery revealed that billions of files are shared across peer-to-peer networks each month. Respondents are aware that users employ their software primarily to download copyrighted files, although the decentralized networks do not reveal which files are copied, and when. Respondents have sometimes learned about the infringement directly when users have e-mailed questions regarding copyrighted works, and respondents have replied with guidance. Respondents are not merely passive recipients of information about infringement. The record is replete with evidence that when they began to distribute their free software each of them clearly voiced the objective that recipients use the software to download copyrighted works and took active steps to encourage infringement. After the notorious file-sharing service Napster, was sued by copyright holders for facilitating copyright infringement, both respondents promoted and marketed themselves as Napster alternatives. They receive no revenue from users, but, instead, generate income by selling advertising space, then streaming the advertising to their users. As the number of users increases, advertising opportunities are worth more. There is no evidence that either respondent made an effort to filter copyrighted material from users' downloads or otherwise to impede the sharing of copyrighted files.

While acknowledging that respondents' users had directly infringed MGM's copyrights, the District Court nonetheless granted respondents summary judgment as to liability arising from distribution of their software. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. It read Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417, as holding that the distribution of a commercial product capable of substantial noninfringing uses could not give rise to contributory liability for infringement unless the distributor had actual knowledge of specific instances of infringement and failed to act on that knowledge. Because the appeals court found respondents' software to be capable of substantial noninfringing uses and because respondents had no actual knowledge of infringement owing to the software's decentralized architecture, the court held that they were not liable. It also held that they did not materially contribute to their users' infringement because the users themselves searched for, retrieved, and stored the infringing files, with no involvement by respondents beyond providing the software in the first place. Finally, the courts held that respondents could not be held liable under a vicarious infringement theory because they did not monitor or control the software's use, had no agreed-upon right or current ability to supervise its use, and had no independent duty to police infringement.

Held: One who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, going beyond mere distribution with knowledge of third-party action, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties using the device, regardless of the device's lawful uses. Pp. 10-24.

(a) The tension between the competing values of supporting creativity through copyright protection and promoting technological innovation by limiting infringement liability is the subject of this case. Despite offsetting considerations, the argument for imposing indirect liability here is powerful, given the number of infringing downloads that occur daily using respondents' software. When a widely shared product is used to commit infringement, it may be impossible to enforce rights in the protected work effectively against all direct infringers, so that the only practical alternative is to go against the device's distributor for secondary liability on a theory of contributory or vicarious infringement. One infringes contributorily by intentionally inducing or encouraging direct infringement, and infringes vicariously by profiting from direct infringement while declining to exercise the right to stop or limit it. Although "[t]he Copyright Act does not expressly render anyone liable for [another's] infringement," Sony, 464 U.S., at 434, these secondary liability doctrines emerged from common law principles and are well established in the law, e.g., id., at 486. Pp. 10-13.

(b) Sony addressed a claim that secondary liability for infringement can arise from the very distribution of a commercial product. There, copyright holders sued Sony, the manufacturer of videocassette recorders, claiming that it was contributorily liable for the infringement that occurred when VCR owners taped copyrighted programs. The evidence showed that the VCR's principal use was "time-shifting," i.e., taping a program for later viewing at a more convenient time, which the Court found to be a fair, noninfringing use. 464 U.S., at 423-424. Moreover, there was no evidence that Sony had desired to bring about taping in violation of copyright or taken active steps to increase its profits from unlawful taping. Id., at 438. On those facts, the only conceivable basis for liability was on a theory of contributory infringement through distribution of a product. Id., at 439. Because the VCR was "capable of commercially significant noninfringing uses," the Court held that Sony was not liable. Id., at 442. This theory reflected patent law's traditional staple article of commerce doctrine that distribution of a component of a patented device will not violate the patent if it is suitable for use in other ways. 35 U.S.C. 271(c). The doctrine absolves the equivocal conduct of selling an item with lawful and unlawful uses and limits liability to instances of more acute fault. In this case, the Ninth Circuit misread Sony to mean that when a product is capable of substantial lawful use, the producer cannot be held contributorily liable for third parties' infringing use of it, even when an actual purpose to cause infringing use is shown, unless the distributors had specific knowledge of infringement at a time when they contributed to the infringement and failed to act upon that information. Sony did not displace other secondary liability theories. Pp. 13-17.

(c) Nothing in Sony requires courts to ignore evidence of intent to promote infringement if such evidence exists. It was never meant to foreclose rules of fault-based liability derived from the common law. 464 U.S., at 439. Where evidence goes beyond a product's characteristics or the knowledge that it may be put to infringing uses, and shows statements or actions directed to promoting infringement, Sony's staple-article rule will not preclude liability. At common law a copyright or patent defendant who "not only expected but invoked [infringing use] by advertisement" was liable for infringement. Kalem Co. v. Harper Brothers, 222 U.S. 55, 62-63. The rule on inducement of infringement as developed in the early cases is no different today. Evidence of active steps taken to encourage direct infringement, such as advertising an infringing use or instructing how to engage in an infringing use, shows an affirmative intent that the product be used to infringe, and overcomes the law's reluctance to find liability when a defendant merely sells a commercial product suitable for some lawful use. A rule that premises liability on purposeful, culpable expression and conduct does nothing to compromise legitimate commerce or discourage innovation having a lawful promise. Pp. 17-20.

(d) On the record presented, respondents' unlawful objective is unmistakable. The classic instance of inducement is by advertisement or solicitation that broadcasts a message designed to stimulate others to commit violations. MGM argues persuasively that such a message is shown here. Three features of the evidence of intent are particularly notable. First, each of the respondents showed itself to be aiming to satisfy a known source of demand for copyright infringement, the market comprising former Napster users. Respondents' efforts to supply services to former Napster users indicate a principal, if not exclusive, intent to bring about infringement. Second, neither respondent attempted to develop filtering tools or other mechanisms to diminish the infringing activity using their software. While the Ninth Circuit treated that failure as irrelevant because respondents lacked an independent duty to monitor their users' activity, this evidence underscores their intentional facilitation of their users' infringement. Third, respondents make money by selling advertising space, then by directing ads to the screens of computers employing their software. The more their software is used, the more ads are sent out and the greater the advertising revenue. Since the extent of the software's use determines the gain to the distributors, the commercial sense of their enterprise turns on high-volume use, which the record shows in infringing. This evidence alone would not justify an inference of unlawful intent, but its import is clear in the entire record's context. Pp. 20-23.

(e) In addition to intent to bring about infringement and distribution of a device suitable for infringing use, the inducement theory requires evidence of actual infringement by recipients of the device, the software in this case. There is evidence of such infringement on a gigantic scale. Because substantial evidence supports MGM on all elements, summary judgment for respondents was error. On remand, reconsideration of MGM's summary judgment motion will be in order. Pp. 23-24.

380 F. 3d 1154, vacated and remanded.

SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. GINSBURG, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and KENNEDY, J., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which STEVENS and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined


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