A group of technology trade groups, consumer advocates and lawyers filed more than 20 briefs Tuesday in support of peer-to-peer (P-to-P) software vendors facing a US Supreme Court showdown with the movie industry later this month.

Groups filing briefs in support of Grokster and Morpheus distributor StreamCast Networks argued that the movie industry's attempts to use courts to shut down the two vendors would stop innovative new technologies from being introduced in the US. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the MGM versus Grokster case on March 29.

Towards a new business paradigm

The entertainment industry has attempted to stall several technologies, including the VCR, the copying machine and tape recorders, as they became available, but in the end found ways to make money from those technologies, said participants in a press conference organized by digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge. The case could affect the "entire American technology sector," said Fred von Lohmann, senor staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights group.

"The question really boils down to, will America's technology companies be hiring more engineers, or will they be firing engineers and hiring lawyers instead?" von Lohmann said.

In the case, the movie industry sued the P-to-P vendors, arguing they were responsible for widespread copyright violations by people using their software. The ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that Grokster, StreamCast Networks and a site operated by StreamCast called Musiccity.com were not liable for copyright violations by their users.

Supporters of the Grokster position argue the movie industry is attempting overturn the Supreme Court's 1984 Sony Betamax ruling, in which technologies with significant noninfringing uses - in that case, a video recorder - were not liable for their users' copyright violations. Movie companies and their allies argue that P-to-P vendors are "bad actors" because the vast majority of files exchanged through P-to-P software violates copyright law.

Can we work it out?

P-to-P vendors trying to build business plans around distributing digital products with permission of the owners take offence to being called "bad actors" by the entertainment industry, added Michael Weiss, chief executive officer of StreamCast Network. "Let me set the record straight: We're not bad actors," Weiss said. "Bad actors are underground or hiding offshore out of reach of the law. Bad actors don't take their fight to the Supreme Court."

At their own press conference, supporters of the entertainment industry argued that movie makers and musicians need to be compensated for their work, and if the US fails to protect copyright law, technology companies will be hurt as their inventions or products are stolen. The position of Grokster supporters - that technological advances will be slowed if the Supreme Court rules against them - is "utter nonsense," said Ted Olson, lawyer for the advocacy group Defenders of Property Rights and former solicitor general.

"Technology will be stopped if the inventors and creators of creative works aren't protected," Olson said.

Protect creators

The lower court's ruling "rewards and promotes illegal behaviour, that is the theft of intellectual property," said Dan Glickman, president and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). "We support anything that gets more people to see our movies, as long as it also protects property rights. The business model created by Grokster does not support property rights - it promotes stealing."

Among the groups filing briefs in support of Grokster Tuesday were: the Consumer Federation of America, 60 intellectual property law professors, the American Conservative Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, 17 computer science professors, the National Venture Capital Association, Intel, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, and the Free Software Foundation.