File-Sharing Kills Baby Seals & Copyright is Copywrong: As Grokster Case Draws Near, Propaganda Escalates

8 Feb ’05

After the Grokster appeal to the USSC was announced, I said, perhaps a little too smugly, "time to pull up a comfy chair, grab some doritos and watch the fun – the PR run-up alone will be quite a spectacle".

Well, as it turns out, the battle for hearts and minds has been intense, and that has not escaped the media’s attention.  The NYT reports on the war today under the title "As Piracy Battle Nears Supreme Court, the Messages Grow Manic".  Manic indeed – money quotes:

But the nagging fear of legal action, even among right-minded users of digital materials, has made it difficult for copyright holders to foster a positive public image – even though they see lawsuits as critical to stamping out theft.

"It would be ideal if our educational efforts got more attention," said Mitch Bainwol, the chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, which has waged a well-publicized legal campaign against file sharers. "But the lawsuits get more coverage because of the nature of the controversy."

Those on the digital rights side of the debate recognize the content industry’s image problem – and they are not above exploiting it. But they know that their own image is troubled, too.

Indeed, all but the most strident digital anarchists agree that illegal file sharing is wrong. Yet those who argue for strong fair-use protections are often portrayed by opponents as supporters of theft.

"They can so easily be painted as favoring piracy," said Susan Crawford, a professor of Internet law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York and a member of the advisory board for Public Knowledge, a Washington group that has fought legislation that it argues would stifle new technological advances. "They have to deal with a concept that’s even harder to visualize – innovation – and they have not found a sound bite or a picture that puts across a message to people."

For groups like Public Knowledge, antipiracy tactics like the entertainment industry’s case against Grokster and StreamCast or legislation like the Induce Act, which stalled in Congress last year and which opponents argued would have stifled technological innovation by making developers of file-sharing software subject to lawsuits, present a morass of legal and technical nuance that is hard to reduce to sound bites.

That is why the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken to turning the gizmos they see threatened by the Grokster lawsuit into pandas and spotted owls. "That’s an image," Ms. Crawford said. "They can play on people’s love for gadgets," although she added that it’s not quite the humanizing stroke one might hope for.

"It’s an uphill battle to visualize innovation," she said.

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