12 June 2005

There is more than a trivial probability that Grokster will be decided tomorrow (13 June). It is virtually certain that the case will be decided before the end of this month—it has been quite some time since the Court held over a matter for reargument.

Going out slightly on a limb, I predict a partial reversal of the Ninth Circuit. The Sony standard will get at least slightly recast, and almost certainly limited to terms parallel to the Home Audio Recording Act: personal use analogous to "time-shifting" (so long, of course, as the evil DRM provisions of chapter 12 remain inviolate) can qualify as fair use or as a permitted backup copy, regardless of medium. Distribution, however, will be out of bounds. The hard part of the question is this: Are the software manufacturers and/or network providers actually in the business of distribution, or only in the business of making tools that can be misused? This is why I think the matter needs to return to the Ninth Circuit: I don't think the factual record is sufficiently developed. Although it seems strange to be talking about intent as an issue concerning copyright—which is, under US law, a strict liability system—I think intent does (or at least should) matter when dealing with indirect liability.

In any event, there's going to be plenty for lots of people to hate no matter how the decision comes down. Nobody with a stake in the litigation appears ready to reach any kind of compromise, or even look at the actual purpose of the IP Clause ("to promote progress"). On the one hand, one doesn't necessarily promote progress by allowing someone to lock up massive parts of the "record" and restrict its use. On the other hand, one doesn't necessarily promote progress by copying only the old stuff, or by copying so much that "starving artist" becomes the default condition.

So go ahead, ladies and gentlemen. Make my predictions look foolish.