May 21, 2024

A (True) Story for Grokster Eve

Recently I met a promising young computer scientist, whose name I will withhold for reasons that will soon be evident. He has developed a very interesting network software system that would be useful for a great many legitimate applications. I was impressed by his system and wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before.

The reason, it turns out, is that he isn’t sure he wants the public to find out about his research. He says this, even though his work would probably be of interest to many people, and could be useful to far more. The problem, he told me, is that if too many people find out what he has done and realize its value, some of them may start using it for illegal purposes. He doesn’t want that kind of trouble, so he is avoiding bringing his work to the attention of the broader public, publishing it in research venues where a small community of experts will see it, but avoiding any further disclosure.

It’s hard to blame him, given the unsettled state of secondary liability law. If some people start using his system illegally, will he be liable? Will he have to redesign his system to try (probably fruitlessly) to make illegal uses impossible? How many redesigns will be necessary? Will he have to face the same uncertainty that Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent, faces? He doesn’t want any of that


  1. In regard to Ulrich’s point, I’d like to disagree. Both knives and Network Software have several applications [and obvious ones at that], whereas a virus is generally hidden and has only one malicious purpose: to screw your computer.

    A knife can spread butter, dice meat, or stab somebody.

    A Networked Program can share documents, images, or music.

    A virus can… take down your computer.

    The first two can both be used productively…and it is down to your own personal choice as to whether or not you use it as it was intended. A virus is there to hurt you. Most people don’t choose that option.

  2. Personally I don’t think the Supreme Court is going to bite on this one. They will find some way to hold up betamax but knock down the two companies in question. I have a feeling that Grokster won’t be the definitive answer on this stuff.

    However, I recently heard someone call making predictions about this case “perilous”, which I think is accurate.

  3. I wonder with what reasoning this case could be decided for the RIAA.

    After all, you can’t sue a knife manufacturer if someone gets stabbed. Why *can* software people even be made accountable for any use of that software? Nobody is forced to use it, much less for a specific purpose (personal freedom).

    People steal media, software doesn’t. So by definition software CAN’T be responsible, at least I would think that (personal responsibility).

    BTW I think the principle of personal freedom and responsibility should also apply to “malware”. If I get sent a virus, and I execute it (i.e. tell my computer to run it for me), then I should hold full responsibility. It’s time that people make informed decisions, that is blame MS (and change vendors) instead of blaming the guy who sent them a vbs file.

    If someone sends me a knife, do I stab myself??

  4. how the line of ‘innocent until poroven…’ blurs. technological progress inhibited through a fear that the risk of innocence or guilt of other people be questioned.

  5. I know a guy who knows that guy, you know ?

  6. hello,

    I see, the work of this researcher was “unduly burdened” by the law, would the MPAA win this case. Though, isnt this case about the operators of the network(‘s central servers), not the developpers? so publishing “dual use” software, like Bram Cohen does, he should not have to worry now, unlike the people hosting the wrong bittorrent trackers?