When I first heard today that Grokster lost their Supreme Court case by a unanimous decision, my reaction was “Oh, bollocks”. In theory, it means that companies which distribute software may be liable for the actions of their users should they break laws, such as infringe copyright. So, for example, if you downloaded copyrighted works using a Bittorrent client, the makers of that client would also be liable for allowing you to do so.
However, if you read the judges’ decision more closely, you’ll see this sentence (emphasis mine):
We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.
What this implies is that if you create some file sharing software and then promote it as a way of downloading copyrighted music for free, then you’d be liable. This is actually quite significant – if your file sharing software is created primarily for the sharing of non-infringing work and somehow warns or discourages users from sharing work in a way that would infringe copyright, then it’s likely that you’d be standing on firmer ground.
From what I have read on the linked page, it would actually seem like the judges have concentrated on the specifics of the Grokster case and not peer-to-peer and file sharing software in general. They’re not going after the technology but are going after those that are abusing it, even if that includes software makers. I suppose that’s fair.
Maybe it’s not such a bad decision after all. But then I’m not a lawyer. In any case, we’ll have to see what happens.