No return to IT's ice age

Hollywood wants to control IT innovation. History, evidence and logic say that this is a script for disaster

Later today in America, the US Supreme Court starts hearing a case with immense potential to shape the way IT develops over the next twenty years. A consortium of film companies, record labels and music publishers are claiming that peer-to-peer software makers are responsible for copyright infringements by their users.

Famously, the same court declared twenty years ago that this was not the case — thus freeing VCR makers from legal restrictions and setting in place the boom in home media consumption that has given film companies, record labels and music publishers one of their biggest cash cows of recent times.

This case is not about copyright infringement, it is about control of distribution. The entertainment industry is claiming vast damage has been done to the music industry as a result of unfettered file swapping, a claim that is by no means proven.

Quite the opposite. There are innumerable examples of similar claims in the past: broadcast radio was going to be the death of newspapers, home taping was killing music, VCRs were murdering Hollywood. In each case, severe controls were sought to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place: in each case, the crimes were as nothing compared to the technology-led revitalisation of the very industries claiming special protection.

Advances in information technology, by definition, include new ways to create and distribute information through technology: the very thing that is under threat. If the entertainment industry succeeds in its legal attack, the principle of innovation in IT will be severely harmed.

New ways of working in business or consumer IT will only be allowed if they can be shown not to harm the interests of the existing industry giants — and you can be very sure that any harm will be argued as criminal in nature.

It's as if the telephone companies were to regain a veto over data networking — something to chill the blood of anyone who can remember the information ice age before the Internet melted the permafrost of state telco control.

We cannot afford to return to those days of glacial change, most certainly not on the whim of woolly mammoths who fear the sun. The Supreme Court must stand by its earlier proven wisdom, safeguarding those who live by change and who build different, better futures.