Not everyone knows this, but the richest man in the world should be a Brit. In the late 1980s, London-born scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web.
Why is this important? Late last month, one of the most significant court hearings of recent times came to an end in the MGM vs Grokster case. The result sent shockwaves through the technology world.
The landmark case resulted in the judges unanimously siding with MGM’s argument that Grokster, a file-sharing software maker, should be held legally responsible for consumers that use its software to illegally share copyrighted material. By producing software that could help users download pirated material, Grokster had committed a mortal sin in the eyes of the entertainment industry.
Unlike Napster – the original file-sharing technology – Grokster is different. Napster was shut down because it owned servers that acted as a central database of the hard-drive locations of pirated music that could be downloaded for free by anyone who used its (free) software. It was a clear-cut case. But Grokster is far more difficult to call. The judges unanimously sided with MGM, not because the software could be used for illegal purposes, but because they felt the company was deliberately marketing its software as a way for users to download pirated media.
The US courts may find that they have bitten off more than they can chew as companies struggle to determine what the true implications are. Would, for example, the victim of a car crash, where the driver at fault was exceeding the speed limit, be justified in pursuing the car manufacturer for damages? They could conceivably argue that many car adverts play on the fact that their machines make a mockery of the 70mph speed limit.
In 2001, Apple launched an aggressive ad campaign it called ‘Rip. Mix. Burn.’ It was a rather obvious, but compelling, play on the abilities of iTunes. Theoretically, this could now fall foul of the judges’ opinion.
This grey area has split the business world and led the likes of Intel, AT &T and Sun to lend their support to Grokster. Perhaps more importantly, the Grokster ruling is another threat to the culture of innovation that exists on the web. Although a completely alien concept to many business people, some of the best innovation occurs despite a complete lack of profit motivation.
Stifling that culture is a threat to what could arguably be seen as the most important revolution since the industrial age.
Consider this: in 1982, then head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, launched a scathing attack on the newly launched video tape recorder. “The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public what the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone,” he said. Of course, it didn’t end up like that, and the VCR provided hugely lucrative revenue.
It was around the same time that Valenti was making his comments that Sir Tim started work on the web and what would become the ultimate file-sharing network. His vision has created a thousand millionaires. Without him there would be no eBay, no Google, no AOL Time Warner, and PartyGaming would not be sitting in the FTSE-100 index.
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