File sharing is not the problem

Conglomerates should try to profit from technology, instead of preserving old business models.

File sharing made its way to the Supreme Court this week, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what the outcome will be.

Justices heard oral arguments in the case, in which the entertainment industry is trying to shut down online file-sharing services. The court is expected to rule on the case in July.

The movie and music industries want makers of file-sharing software to be held responsible if their users download copyrighted material.

According to The Washington Post, hundreds of millions of people worldwide use such programs to trade software, songs and videos. That could be why the entertainment industry sees file sharing as such a threat.

“The Massacre,” 50 Cent’s album, will be Billboard’s No. 1 album next week. Yet, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures, he only sold more than 325,000 albums. In the weeks since the release of “The Massacre,” 50 sold 2.5 million albums, and it’s counted as a great success.

Ashton Kutcher’s film “Guess Who” took the top slot in box-office figures two weekends ago with a $20.7 million opening. When you take into account the price of movie tickets, maybe a couple million people went out to watch Kutcher and Bernie Mac.

Yet, the population of the United States is just less than 300 million, according to the Census Bureau’s population projection.

Despite the seeming pervasiveness of the entertainment industry, its audience isn’t all that large. Given its sales numbers, it’s no wonder the existence of hundreds of millions of downloaders are flashing warning signs at the entertainment industry.

Music sales are down, and if those downloaders could be forced to buy their music instead of getting it for free, record companies could make much more money.

But who’s to say all those people would go out and buy music? Or that they aren’t already doing so?

And let’s not forget all those artists who aren’t in the system. Regardless of what the giants in the entertainment industry like to think, they aren’t the be-all and end-all of music and movies.

The claim by the entertainment industry that “copyright infringement is the only commercially significant use of file-sharing” is ridiculous. File sharing can be beneficial for all kinds of people without violating copyrights.

Plenty of musicians and moviemakers are distributing their work for free and file-sharing software can be a convenient way for them to distribute it.

Of course, that poses its own threat as well. With more choices, consumers don’t have to just choose from whatever artists are signed to big record companies or only watch movies distributed to their local theaters.

For that matter, plenty of people are writing software and want people to trade it. Libraries, as Justice Stephen G. Breyer noted, use the technology to transfer documents. Not all file-sharers are trafficking in copyrighted material. The Supreme Court case is asking for makers of file-sharing software to be put out of business because people might use it to do illegal things.

The Supreme Court ruled on a similar issue in 1984. Under that opinion, Sony couldn’t be held responsible for what people did with its Betamax video recorder. If a product or service is “merely capable” of substantial legal use, a company can’t be held liable for what people do with it.

Grokster and StreamCast Networks, the companies involved in the Supreme Court case, said the “Sony standard” should be applied to them.

Their supporters said the same, claiming that what the entertainment industry is asking for will have a chilling effect on innovation. If inventors have to worry about what people might do with their products, they might not release them.

Even if the court doesn’t agree, the entertainment industry is going to have to come to grips with technological changes. Times change. Even if file-sharing software gets taken out, what happens when someone comes up with some other way to share data?

Maybe the record companies and movie studios need to realize their financial models won’t work in today’s world of DVD-burners and iPods.

They would be better off trying to find a way to profit from new technology, instead of trying to preserve their outdated business models.

Manuelita Beck is a University of New Mexico student. Please send comments to [email protected]