“In a huge setback to the big record and movie companies, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled in favor of two online services that allow people to share music, movies and other digital files freely over the Internet. The decision puts the brakes on the momentum the entertainment industry had previously enjoyed in its legal efforts to block file-swapping services, which have made it easy for consumers to acquire copyrighted material free.” – New York Times, April 26.

The TeleRead take: Heads up, book publishers. In essence, Judge Stephen Wilson said the corporations offering the tools for file-sharing weren’t infringers since the technology also could be used for legal purposes, just like a VCR. What’s more, the companies had less control over users’ actions than, say, Napster did. The ruling, of course, doesn’t mean that the users of the software can escape prosecution for actual piracy. Just the same, an entertainment industry analyst quoted in the Times said that if not reversed, the decision probably would spur Hollywood and recording studios to come up with their own online distribution services. Needless to say, the same concepts here just might apply to the publishers of e-books, which, of course, can be transmitted over the Net faster than movies and records can.

Even better than setting up online services for distribution, however, or simply working with online book stores, why not use the online library model, too? Provisions could exist for distribution of library and nonlibrary books alike (with the former paid for by a national digital library fund and the latter by individual readers–book by book or via subscriptions). Talk about universal distribution based on readers’ immediate wants and needs! File sharing could even take place with unintrusive, privacy-friendly tracking mechanisms. Ultimately that is the best way to address the piracy issue. Make e-books too cheap and too easy to buy–or even free, if included in the library system–and the typical surfer just won’t mess with piracy.

What we have here is VCR II. Remember how Hollywood screamed that video tapes would kill it? Instead the technology offered a lucrative income stream. With enough vision among business people, the Net could do the same for film-makers, recording studios and publishers alike. Ideally the Wilson ruling will encourage corporations to be more open minded about the library model and other alternatives to the cubersome distribution systems traditionally favored by the entertainment industry. Perhaps if AOL Time Warner had been more clueful, it would be much better positioned to profit off the transmission of films, recordings and books over the Net. How pathetic that this massive conglomerate feels compelled to sell its book divison rather than adapt it to ever-better new technologies–including, yes, file-swapping. Fingers crossed that the promised appeal of Wilson’s ruling won’t succeed!


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