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Throughout history, the interests of consumers have repeatedly conflicted with the aims of corporations. And quite often, the only way these clashes can be resolved is in a court of law.
Some of these lawsuits have had lasting effects, radically changing the technological landscape for all of us, whether for better or worse. From allowing us to rip DVDs to making users liable for the music they copy, here are five important court cases you need to know about.
1. The Right to Copy Your Own DVDs
When DVDs first came out, they were bundled with a restrictive copy-protection system called CSS (Content Scrabble System, not to be confused with Cascading Style Sheets in web design). Not only did this prevent people from ripping copies of movies, but it also prevented playback on Linux computers.
This resulted in people trying to devise ways around CSS, eventually leading to a program called DeCSS, which was a combined effort between three developers from different countries. One Norwegian teenager, named Jon Lech Johansen, whose notoriety resulted in him being called “DVD Jon”, was responsible for the GUI interface.
Johansen was charged under Section 145 of the Norwegian Criminal Code, which is essentially an anti-hacking law, not too dissimilar from the UK’s Computer Misuse Act. If found guilty, he could have been imprisoned for up to two years and given a large fine.
But the DVD-CCA and MPA both lost.
The court rejected the notion that decrypting a DVD for personal use was the same as unlawfully accessing data from a computer system. Furthermore, DVD Jon didn’t actually obtain the decryption keys himself. These were reverse-engineered from a badly-implemented software DVD player by an anonymous German developer called “the nomad”.
The court found that the possession of these keys were not found to be unlawful either. Johansen was acquitted of all charges and later moved to the United States, where he founded DoubleTwist, a mobile app used to transfer media to smartphones.
The real knock to the MPA was the ruling that a private citizen’s right to copy media they own wasn’t removed by a label on a DVD. Movie studios couldn’t unilaterally strip people of their rights.
The DVD Jon case empowered consumers to enjoy their property as they saw fit. It also spawned one of the earliest examples of digital civil disobedience, as people took the contentious code that was examined in the case and spread it as far and wide as possible. It was even graffitied on walls. One person even got a tattoo of it!
Unfortunately, other rights like those won by the DVD Jon case are still under threat. For example, it was a criminal offense to unlock cell phones in the United States until recently, and the newly-signed Trans-Pacific Partnership makes it illegal to circumvent DRM. The war still rages even to this day.
2. The End of Microsoft’s Monopoly
In the late 1990s, Microsoft was the dominant force in the world of software. They had no rivals. No competitors. No threats. There was no other company with the wealth and human capital of Microsoft. They had become a monopoly, perhaps without even realizing it.
This troubled the U.S. Department of Justice because monopolies are seldom good for consumers and innovation. The Department of Justice was especially worried that Microsoft was abusing its market dominance in order to unfairly disadvantage the competition, and thus maintain that dominance.
The primary issue with Microsoft was its bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows, which arguably restricted the market for competitors. (In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it wasn’t easy to change your browser. You either had to download an alternative using a flaky and slow dial-up connection, or buy one in a store.)
The Department of Justice was also concerned that Microsoft was crippling their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in order to favor Internet Explorer over other browsers. APIs are used to build software, and within the context of Windows, they are used to interface with the underlying operating system.
By crippling these APIs, Microsoft could have severely curtailed the features and performance of third-party browsers, making them less desirable to consumers.
The trial was unique for two main reasons. First, it was the world’s most powerful country going against the world’s most powerful corporation — a Goliath versus Goliath battle. Second, Bill Gates exhibited surreal behavior during his deposition.
Gates was devious and evasive. He argued over the definitions of simple words like “we” and “ask”, and whenever he was asked an incriminating or embarrassing question, he responded with, “I don’t recall”.
Ultimately, the judge ruled against Microsoft and ordered that Microsoft be broken up into two separate companies. One would produce the operating system, and the other would produce other software products, like Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer.
Microsoft immediately appealed and later came to a settlement with the Department of Justice. Microsoft was required to share its APIs with other companies and had to make available its source code, records, and systems to three government representatives over the next five years.
Some regarded this settlement to be little more than a slap on the wrist. But they’re wrong.
It paved the way for Microsoft to be challenged by other companies, like Mozilla, Apple, and Google. It allowed them to compete with Microsoft on an even-footing. More importantly, it meant that Microsoft had to learn to embrace a more competitive, pluralistic software landscape. They couldn’t be king forever.
3. The Death of Napster
Before iTunes and Spotify came about, it used to be the case that if you wanted to listen to a song, you’d have to go down to the record store and buy it on a physical medium, like tape, compact disc, or Vinyl.
It wasn’t possible to buy songs piecemeal as you can today with iTunes, and CDs were unfathomably expensive. But then two things happened.
First, a file format came about that changed the way people listened to music on their computers. Songs that were virtually indistinguishable in quality from the original CDs could be stored with just a few megabytes, and you could fit an entire album on a ZIP disk. I am, of course, talking about the MP3 file format.
Then, in 1999, came Napster. Napster was the first real service that allowed people to share songs across the Internet. At last, there was now a digital marketplace of music where everything was free and everything was available — even music that hadn’t yet been released.
The latter was what earned the ire of Metallica, who, at the time, was one of the biggest rock groups on the planet. After drummer Lars Ulrich discovered that a demo of their song “I Disappear” and their entire back catalog had been leaked onto Napster, they sued. They wanted a minimum of $100,000 for each song that was illegally downloaded.
Napster ultimately lost the case. It was forced to actively filter Metallica’s music from the service and block all 230,000 users who had shared it. This was ultimately a death-knell for Napster, and the service closed down not long after.
Napster has long been forgotten, but this case radically shaped the Internet. It represented a turning point for artists asserting their rights over their copyright on the Wild West of the Internet.
Although the judgment was favorable for Metallica, it ultimately proved to be an embarrassing episode for them, and for Lars Ulrich in particular, who was the face of the lawsuit. They were ridiculed on an episode of South Park and in films like Get Him To The Greek.
4. The Death of LimeWire
One month after Napster shut down, another service called LimeWire launched. In many ways, it was the same as Napster: a peer-to-peer service that allowed users to share files with each other.
There were some fundamental technological differences from Napster though, and the main one was that Napster routed all their users through a set of centralized servers while LimeWire had built a decentralized protocol.
The problem was that LimeWire was, like Napster, facilitating the wholesale piracy of copyrighted materials. This resulted in Arista Records, along with thirteen other recording companies, suing the company in the Southern District of New York.
These record labels argued that LimeWire was guilty of inducing and contributing to copyright infringement, as well as violating state law that prohibits copyright infringement and unfair competition. The judge ruled in favor of the labels, permanently shutting down LimeWire with an injunction.
The judge also ruled that LimeWire should pay damages. Initially, the defendants wanted to calculate the amount on a per-infringement basis. Given the estimate of 500 million stolen acts of copyright, this could have totaled as much as $72 to $75 trillion dollars — more than all the money in the world.
Ultimately, this ruling was significant for a number of reasons. It proved, once and for all, that companies like LimeWire couldn’t plead ignorance of the actions of their users when they are involved in widespread copyright infringement.
But it also demonstrated the routing and resilient nature of the Internet. Not long after LimeWire was shuttered, unofficial versions were released that allowed people to continue sharing files from the same decentralized network.
These came from anonymous software developers and hackers, not registered limited liability companies, so there was little that could be done to stop them.
5. The Case Against Downloaders
Jammie Thomas-Rasset is a Native American mother of four from Brainerd, Minnesota. In August 2005, she received a letter in the mail from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) accusing her of having shared twenty-two songs over the Kazaa network.
The letter offered her a chance to settle. She would have to pay a fee of $5,000 in order to avoid being taken to court. Perhaps believing it to be a scam, or simply not being able to pay the huge sum demanded, she declined the settlement. That would be a costly mistake.
She was taken to court and she lost. The RIAA was awarded statutory damages of $222,000 (the equivalent of $9,250 per song), which was later increased to $1,920,000 ($80,000 per song). Thomas-Rasset appealed and was able to get the total reduced to $54,000 ($2,250 per song).
The case continued to bounce its way through the court system, going through seven rounds of trials and appeals, until Thomas-Rasset was stuck with a final judgment of the original $220,000. She has yet to pay any of the sum and intends to declare bankruptcy.
The Jammie Thomas-Rasset case was important because it showed that record labels were prepared to go after users of filesharing services, not just the operators.
But was it a victory for the RIAA? Hardly. It was a public relations disaster. They were reviled for the disproportionate and heavy-handed way they went after this single mother of four. In the end, they decided to stop suing customers and instead focus on stopping filesharing by working with Internet service providers.
Court Adjourned: Any Other Cases?
These five court cases radically reshaped the world of technology. They altered our relationships with the companies that manufacture the devices and software we use, and the music and movies we consume. Some were rousing victories. Other were bitter losses. You should know about them.
At the same time, we should be aware of the legal battles that rage right now, that have the potential to fundamentally change the Internet, and stifle future technological innovation.
Do you have your own take on these court cases? Do you think other tech lawsuits have had a similarly transformative affect? Let me know in the comments below.
Image Credit: DeCSS (Greg Chiasson)