Legal actions to halt innovation

Prevailing myths about computers hold that technological innovations epitomize progress, which are both desirable and inevitable. Next week in class, we’ll wonder out loud whether the inevitable thrust of progress is such a good idea, particularly when it seems devoid of any precautionary principle. But how comfortable do we really feel about halting progress? Consider this article from the The Washington Post, which asks: How should courts view technologies that have beneficial uses but also are heavily used for illegal acts?

Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on whether a file-sharing service named Grokster should be held liable for the millions of people around the world who use it to illegally trade music, movies and software.

The entertainment industry is asking the court to rule that even though Grokster itself does not engage in stealing files, the service is responsible because it is predominantly used for theft and has done nothing to try to stop that use.


The prospect that the court might adopt this legal reasoning is sending shudders through the technology and consumer electronics communities. Hundreds of existing products could be threatened, they say. And they fear that new products, and early funding, will die in the crib if the gear might be co-opted by people wishing to use it improperly.

“If it’s so risky for me to try out new things or put new things on the market, you are really going to devastate people’s willingness to innovate,” said Elliott Frutkin, chief executive of Time Trax Technologies Corp., a Gaithersburg start-up.

For those of us who love our iPods, peer-to-peer software, and Tivo, can we be so quick to condemn progress? That is the conundrum for our-technology-loving culture.

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