Over the past two days we have seen that filesharing is vulnerable to spamming, and that as a defense, the filesharers have used the IP block list to exclude the spammers from sharing files. Today I discuss how I think lawyers and laypeople should look at the legal issues. Since I am most decidedly not a lawyer, nothing I say here should be considered definitive. Hopefully, it is at least interesting.
Washington Square, in New York City, was for many years a place where drugs were sold. A fellow would stand around quietly saying to passersby “Smoke, smoke!” However, this so-called “steerer” held no drugs. His role was simply to direct the buyer to the “pitcher”, who had the drugs somewhere nearby, and who kept silent.
Even the strongest defender of free-speech rights understands that the “steerer’s” words are not just speech. His words are not similar to those of this article, though both simply say that someone in the park is selling. He is as legally responsible for the sale as the “pitcher”, because they are, according to legal terminology, “acting in concert”. He is a drug dealer who may never touch any drugs. Note also that the “steerer” receives payments from the illegal transactions – though it is not in fact legally necessary to be able to prove the payments to establish that he’s “acting in concert”. All that’s required is that the “steerer” and the “pitcher” share “community of purpose” in facilitating the illegal transaction.
In the Napster case, the court held that Napster, even though it did not have any copyrighted data on its servers, was liable for contributory infringement. To use Napster, a downloader would login to Napster’s central server, which connected the user to another user who had a file that was being searched for. Since it was Napster’s role to hook up the parties illegally exchanging files, it is reasonable to see this as analogous to the “steerer” in Washington Square – Napster didn’t have the infringing materials, but that really isn’t a defense.
The gnutella network is decentralized to solve the legal problem presented by the Napster decision. Nonetheless, there is something still centralized in gnutella: the IP block list. Users of LimeWire get their block list from LimeWire and only from LimeWire. Accordingly, if Napster was like the “steerer” in Washington Square, LimeWire furthers the “community of purpose” in a different way; it is someone who gives negative information rather than affirmative. He’s someone paid to stand in the park pointing out who are cheaters selling bad drugs, allowing the purchasers to find the good stuff.
What is a legitimate P2P spam filtering authority versus one that shares “community of purpose” with infringers? The former could legitimately act to keep the network from being flooded by those selling weight loss drugs, without facilitating infringing. There is probably no bright-line rule, but it is reasonably clear that LimeWire is well on the wrong side of any possible grey area.
It’s useful to compare gnutella spam cop LimeWire with e-mail spam cop AOL.
LimeWire does not clearly advertise its spam cop role as a feature of its software, and does not discuss its block list. (The LimeWire web site has only the cryptic description “We’re always working to protect you from viruses and unwanted sharing.”) There is no discussion anywhere about what sorts of sites and files it is blocking and for what reason. No notification is given by LimeWire to a site when it is blocked, nor is there any way given to contact LimeWire to remove yourself from the block list.
In comparison, blocking e-mail spam is, for AOL, a major selling point. AOL does not block bulk e-mailers (many of which are legitimate) on a whim. Every e-mail rejected by AOL is bounced with a notification to the sender, and there are detailed instructions to bulk e-mailers as to what they need to do to avoid running afoul of AOL’s filters. There is a way to contact AOL to remove oneself from the block list, if one is legitimate. The whole process is transparent.
It is clear that a legitimate spam cop cannot block spoofers, since any search for a non-infringing file would be unmolested by spoofs, yet it appears that LimeWire does block MediaDefender. In fact, LimeWire appears to be quietly promising to do so, when it says that it protects against “unwanted sharing”, whatever that is.
Lastly, it appears that LimeWire’s statements in court conceal what it is doing.
As we mentioned in the first post, there is an ongoing case, Arista v Lime Group. In its motion for Summary Judgement, LimeWire states
Likewise, LW does not have the ability to control the manner in which users employ the LimeWire software. Unlike the Napster defendants, LW does not maintain central servers containing files or indices of files. … LW’s system is like that analysed by the Ninth Circuit in Grokster, “truly decentralized”. … LW no more controls the actions of its customers than do any of the thousands of companies that provide hardware or other software used in connection with the internet.
This omits any discussion of LimeWire’s centralized block list. LW assuredly does control the manner in which LimeWire users employ the LimeWire software, because if a site is added to the IP block list, it is no longer visible to most LimeWire users. This is very far from the normal situation applying in other software used in connection with the internet.
Moreover, the plaintiffs’ attorneys appear to be unaware of the blocking of spoofs, as their reply motion makes no mention of it (nor the other hidden features of LimeWire software discussed yesterday).
While it might be possible to run a legitimate spam-blocking service for P2P networks, it would look rather different from what LimeWire is doing.
The best way to regulate filesharing effectively is to analyze the various players’ roles on free-speech grounds. The individual filesharers (when they share infringing material) are certainly violating the law, but in a small way that probably can’t be reasonably controlled. The publishers of the software that allows the network to run (including LimeWire) are exercising free speech – the fact that their code can be made to do something illegal should be irrelevant. However, LimeWire is facilitating infringing because of the way it runs its IP block list. If LimeWire were shut down, the gnutella network become useless for downloading infringing music. Because of their actions to keep the network safe for infringers – their “acting in concert” – LimeWire should be liable for contributory infringement.
This course will avoid free speech restrictions that trouble many. In terms of preventing infringing, it also will be far more productive than trying to target the small fish. It is an effective measure that respects rights.
[This series of posts has been a somewhat shortened version of an article here.]