After 'Grokster,' the Battle Continues

November 16, 2005

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in MGM Studios v. Grokster continues to reverberate in the world where music and technology collide, as another file sharing network popular with college students, i2hub, followed Grokster Monday in announcing that it would shut down.

But if recording industry officials think they have definitively won the battle over the free sharing of music and video, they are mistaken, many students -- and some campus experts -- say.

“Ever since Napster 1.0's closure, [file sharing] networks have multiplied,” said Dan Bruno, an English and music major at Tufts University. “People will continue to make [file sharing] networks as long as there's still an Internet.”

Last week, five months since the court’s decision, the Grokster service announced that it was shutting down after its owners reached a settlement with the Recording Industry Association of America and movie studios. “This settlement brings to a close an incredibly significant chapter in the story of digital music,” Mitch Bainwol, Chairman and CEO of the RIAA, said last week. “This is a chapter that ends on a high note for the recording industry, the tech community and music fans and consumers everywhere.  At the end of the day, this is about our ability to invest in new music. An online marketplace populated by legitimate services allows us to do just that.”

The recording industry association did not actually sue to shut down the i2hub network, which posted this message on its site Monday: “Remember i2hub – R.I.P. 03.14.2004 - 11.14.2005.” But organizers of the popular file sharing network say they took this action to prevent possible RIAA litigation in the wake of Grokster.

“We continue to be encouraged by the response of many of the illegal [peer-to-peer] sites to the Supreme Court's unanimous Grokster decision,” Amanda Hunter, a spokeswoman for the recording industry association, said Tuesday. “The message from the court has been heard, and we look forward to working with services that will respect the laws protecting creators.”

Supporters of file sharing, however, say recording industry officials shouldn’t assume that they’ve put the nail in the coffin of student efforts to share music and video.

Bruno said that earlier peer-to-peer file-sharing programs, like Napster, were somewhat easy beasts to tame. “A protocol like BitTorrent, though, is much more decentralized,” he noted. “It's impossible for the RIAA to shut down because there is nothing to shut down -- all of the information is not contained in one place. The only thing they can do is shut down the infrastructure, such as the Web sites where people announce available BitTorrents. But even that is impractical -- sites can just operate out of other countries, as The Pirate Bay has.”

Joe Malchow, a government major at Dartmouth College, is concerned about moral issues stemming from the i2hub shutdown.

“The idea that a few students can come up with a highly effective medium of data transmission -- which doesn't use central file storage and doesn't in any way advocate copyright violation -- and then have their invention threatened out of existence is demoralizing to would-be college programmers,” he said. A contributor to, Malchow added: “To say that i2hub cannot exist because it facilitates piracy is no more rational than saying the Second Amendment ought to be repealed because guns are sometimes used for crime, or that Movable Type or ought to be banned because bloggers sometimes quote, technically illegally, The Wall Street Journal.

Even if well-publicized peer-to-peer services do continue to fold, some students argue that the ability to download free music will be a way of life for the foreseeable future.

“Yes, a couple of big-name programs have closed,” said a student blogger who attends a Big Ten university.  “But hundreds have replaced it and these aren’t programs that are trying to get attention -- they’ve gone underground -- and we can find them.” The blogger, representing his underground argument in true form, asked to remain anonymous for fear of being sued by the RIAA.

Students aren’t alone in thinking that they haven't lost the battle with the mighty recording industry. Pennsylvania State University’s president, Graham B. Spanier, who co-chairs the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities Technology Task Force, thinks that the anonymous blogger has a point. “My own view is that no one has yet won the battle,” he said Tuesday. That is despite the fact that "there has been substantial progress on combating piracy, and the Grokster decision was an important element in that respect.”

Spanier noted that he’s pleased with the progress to date of his committee, which is intended to curb illegal file sharing on college campuses. He said that the committee plans to host progress discussions for university presidents and others during the February meeting of the American Council on Education.

“Certainly universities have played a key role in reducing piracy through their educational efforts, increased enforcement, and the adoption of legitimate online services,” said Spanier. “But there is still a considerable degree of piracy that occurs and the efforts underway will require continued vigilance and creative thinking.”

Steven L. Worona, a policy director with Educause, said Tuesday that the RIAA and movie studios need to be more creative in “developing a business model that is consistent with today’s technology.”  

“New mechanisms need to be found for distributing music,” said Worona. “That doesn’t mean … that all consumers insist their music be free. Apple iTunes has sold 600 million downloaded tracks. So, consumers decided 600 million times that they would pay for something they could get for free.”

Some students buy Worona's argument. Bruno, whose favorite music is jazz, said that he initially signed onto i2hub to search for legal music. “Many of my favorite bands allow fans to record and trade their live shows for free, many of which turn up at sites like the Live Music Archive,” he noted.  “I wanted to see if there were any of these live shows on i2hub. There weren't.”

And Bruno remains a fan of Apple’s pay-for-music iTunes service, saying that he makes every effort to support artists he likes.

“In my mind I frame it as more of a moral dilemma than a legal one,” said Bruno.  “I have no ethical qualms with downloading an old Beatles track, since the extra dollar in Michael Jackson's pocket isn't important to me.  But for my favorite up-and-coming artists, like Kaki King, I make sure to buy every single CD.”

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