The entertainment industry has taken its battle against illegal downloading to America’s Supreme Court. But attacking the technology behind file-sharing could stifle innovation without tackling the industry’s long-term problems.

The music business should have stuck by Thomas Edison’s technology if it wanted to avoid the threat of piracy. His wax cylinders could record a performance but could not be reproduced; that became possible only with the invention of the flat-disc record some years later. On Tuesday March 29th, America’s Supreme Court began to hear testimony in a case brought by the big entertainment companies that is intended to stop the illegal downloading of copyright-protected music and film.

The industry’s target is the peer-to-peer (P2P) technology that allows the swapping of files directly over the internet. The case in question pits two makers of file-sharing software, StreamCast Networks and Grokster, against the entertainment business, represented by one of Hollywood’s most famous studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). And the judges, despite their years, showed that they were well acquainted with the world of file swappers and the digital gadgetry that a ruling against the P2P firms might stymie.

The entertainment business has long been susceptible to copyright infringement—and it has usually blamed the electronics industry. The music industry first cried foul at the introduction of the cassette-tape recorder in the late 1960s. More recently, the digitisation of music has led to widespread “burning” of music tracks on CDs using home computers. The latest threat to the record companies is a copying technique of even greater speed, ease and scope.

Every day some 4m Americans swap music files over the internet, according to figures from Pew, an independent research organisation. Now the swapping of new films online is also gaining ground, to the chagrin of the movie industry. Donald Verrilli, the lawyer representing the entertainment business, said in Tuesday’s court hearing that file-sharing was “a gigantic engine of infringement” that allowed the theft of 2.6 billion digital music, film and other files every month.

Scroll to Top