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U.S. Supreme Court mulling key technology issues

Arguments over two of the nation’s most contentious technology issues were debated late last month before the U.S. Supreme Court. One involved the future distribution of electronic entertainment programming, while the other could determine whether cable operators are allowed to control who offers Internet access over their systems.

File sharing

The distribution question comes in Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios v. Grokster, No. 04-480, which targets companies that enable Internet users to share computer files on peer-to-peer networks. The entertainment industry — led by the Hollywood studios — wants to make such networks illegal as they try to widen the definition of copyright infringement. Opponents say such a move would crush technological innovation.

The so-called “Betamax doctrine,” the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision that absolved Sony, manufacturer of the Betamax video recorder, of copyright liability for infringing uses that consumers might make of the product.

The Sony decision provided the right answer, and that should be the end of the case, Richard G. Taranto, arguing for Grokster and StreamCast, told the court. He said it was “critical” for the Supreme Court to adhere to the “clear Sony rule” for the sake of “innovation protection.”

In briefs filed as friends of the court, allies of the file-sharing networks in various technology industries and civil liberties organizations have depicted file sharing as a useful, if not vital, means of expanding knowledge through the inexpensive transmission and Internet archiving of lawful material in the public domain.

Internet access over cable

The Supreme Court also heard an appeal by the FCC and the cable television industry of another appellate court ruling, this one with implications for the development of the business of providing high-speed access to the Internet.

The outcome of the case could determine whether consumers can someday choose among different ISPs when receiving broadband access over cable lines.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected the FCC’s view that companies offering cable modem service should be considered in the “information service” rather than telecommunications business, and as such should be exempt from the extensive regulation to which federal law subjects traditional telephone companies.

At issue is the ability of Internet service providers to force cable companies to open their broadband lines. The outcome of the case, National Cable and Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services, No. 04-277, is likely to depend on how much deference the justices decide to give to the FCC.

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