Representatives for the music and movie industries have filed a petition asking the US Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision in which companies that enable peer-to-peer (P-to-P) file trading networks were absolved of liability for copyright violations by users of those networks.

A spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) confirmed that the MPAA, along with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), plans to escalate the dispute to the highest court in the US.

"We believe that the liability, the secondary liability that these companies have avoided by building their companies in such a way to get around the law, is something that needs to be thought about and revised," the spokesman said.

Technology use, or abuse?

In August, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously to uphold a lower court ruling that P-to-P companies Grokster, Streamcast Networks, and were not liable for the copyright violations committed by users of those services. P-to-P technology has many uses beyond the sharing of copyright files, and because of the decentralized nature of the P-to-P services in question, the companies that operate those services can't know exactly what all their users are doing at a given moment, the appeals court said.

The centralized network operated by P-to-P pioneer Napster led to its shutdown by the courts. Those servers held music and video files that users shared between their PCs, whereas Grokster and Morpheus, the service operated by Streamcast, do not have a central network of servers that temporarily store files.

"There are technologies and Web sites that we all know are built to share copyright-protected work and other works but that they are not liable because they have designed themselves in a way to get around the law," the MPAA spokesman said.

But benefits for all

Public Knowledge, a group that lobbies on behalf of P-to-P advocates, said the MPAA has no standing to pursue the case further.

"The Grokster case was based on the principles established in the 1984 Betamax case, which has lead to the largest and most profitable period of technological innovation in this country’s history.

"Consumers, industry and our country have all benefited as a result," the group said. Betamax was a video cassette recorder format developed by Sony that drew the anger of television and movie studios, which thought its use would lead to widespread copyright violations.

The MPAA expects to hear by November whether the Supreme Court will hear the case, unless the P-to-P legal team files for an extension, the spokesman said. In that case, the decision could stretch into January.