Peer to Peer Justice

The unanimous Supreme Court decision that computer file-sharing services are illegal if their primary intent is to induce users to steal copyrighted songs is a judicial home run on two counts.

The court spoke with one voice in upholding traditional intellectual property law in the Internet age without putting a damper on the creation of new technologies. It carefully ruled that a business plan built on the premise of illegal copying is wrong but it did not require existing or new digital technology to have built-in filters, per se, to prevent illegal copying.

The artistic heirs to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or John Lennon will now more easily reap the reward of their creative efforts. The inventor of the next iPod, be it in a garage or a research lab, is cleared for takeoff.

More important, society benefits when creative efforts are rewarded and made available under legal protections. But that said, there is a troubling dimension to this ruling that bears closer examination. When a court that routinely issues decisions along narrow 5-4 majorities rules 9-0, the decision invites the question: If it was so obvious, why was there a need to hear the case in the first place? It is as important to look to the spirit, not just the letter of the decision.

The legal message is clear. Digital shoplifting is wrong. The Court felt compelled to address the use of software that abets this activity on a scale of billions of illegal downloads. Copying on this scale aborts the business plan of any digital entertainment company and potentially renders worthless any archive of song or film. The court's moral message should be just as clear. Though the nine justices didn't crowd together in a pulpit delivering a fire and brimstone sermon that stealing is wrong, they indirectly called into question a practice more common on college campuses than skipping class.

Parents, it's time for a trip behind the proverbial computer screen with your child. Respect for the work of another as well as his or her right to the fruits of that work is a value that both parents and children should honor. No parent gives keys to the car to a child knowing the child is going to steal gas at the pump. The same holds true in cyberspace. The content a teenager watches or listens to didn't appear, just as allowances don't appear, from air.

"Peer to peer" is an apt description of file-sharing software. The court made clear that fair play must always be part of any such sharing.

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