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Friday, January 13, 2006

Lawsuit in a Box

The Dutch company Lamabox recently released a lawsuit in a box – what they claim as the world's first media player with P2P functionality. RIAA and MPAA beware, this box attaches directly to a television and provides search and download support for many of the popular P2P services, including Bittorrent and Kazaa. It purports to play any format of video/audio/image available on the internet. It also includes a DVD burner for those inclined to make hard copies of those torrent rips, while still providing up to 400 GB of space, or enough to rival a small Blockbuster branch. Right now the whole package sells for as low as 279 Euro. But is it legal?

Grokster Redux?

Grokster was terminated by the Court because it affirmatively fostered copyright infringement. Lamabox takes it a step further, basically hand-wrapping illegal copies of movies and placing them in the user's lap. It's the MPAA's worst nightmare - Copyright Infringement for Dummies. And Lamabox claims to be legal in Netherlands. The Dutch Court, citing U.S. decision Sony v. Universal, upheld a challenge in 2003 to then-Dutch based Kazaa, finding that only the uploading of copyrighted material was illegal. (Sony involved a case concerning the new technology of VHS tape recorders. The court found that this technology was not illegal because it could serve purposes other than copyright infringement). The logical extension of this Kazaa holding would be to protect Lamabox.

But the U.S. Supreme Court refused to kowtow to Dutch precedential interpretation of U.S. caselaw, and held that Grokster affirmatively encouraged copyright infringement, rejecting the viability of its positive legal uses. The analogy to Sony is particularly apt in considering the Lamabox. Here we have a box that plays and records movies - the only major difference being the way the movies are transmitted. Of course that's really the sticking point. The concern is that the movies on the Lamabox will be unlicensed and illegal copyright violations, whereas the VCR only plays licensed legal copies. Oh wait, that's not right. Moreover,
with the networks clambering into the business of digital transmission, even
copyrighted material can be legally downloaded. Not to mention the many unprotected media such as fan-made Star Wars Revolutions.

Of course, Lamabox is encouraging illegal downloads claiming that only uploading is illegal. Their marketing campaign emphasizes this legal loophole. Downloading non-copyrighted material is always legal, and in most countries it's also legal to download copyrighted material for personal use.

"Green Machine"

But query as to whether this is any different from the $100 laptop initiative. How long before those children learn to download and share movies? Granted, the quality of the picture may be inferior on these laptops, but the initiative is providing the means for copyright infringement. Of course these “green machines” have other legitimate uses - it's always a question of degree. But the Lamabox certainly has "legitimate" non-illegal uses such as allowing the easy downloading and playing of non-copyrighted media. However after Grokster, a marketing campaign which focuses on encouraging copyright infringement will be looked upon unfavorably by US courts.

Ultimately the Lamabox is really nothing more than a small computer that uses a television as a monitor. It creates no services that are not already out there. It uses extant software such as Bittorrent and Edonkey and Gnutella. It merely makes copyrighted material accessible, in a manner similar to an internet service provider. It is nothing you could not get with a PC and an S-Video cable. Thus, it presents an interesting legal issue - if the Lamabox merely facilitates the ease in which copyright infringement may occur, is the box itself illegal? Is it the box or the software which should be held responsible? Can we make a distinction between the container and the programs it holds? (Consider the iPod). And if the courts
determine that Bittorrent is legal but Gnutella is not, can the Lamabox
satisfy legal requirements merely by removing those Gnutella operations?

"Theft" for Dummies

In the end, like most legal questions, it is a matter of degree. The Lamabox is no different than hundreds of other technologies popping up ever more frequently. It can serve an illegal purpose and it makes it easier than previous technologies to do so. But whereas Napster and its progeny was a giant leap for the masses, Lamabox is but a tiny pebble in the ocean. Whereas Napster made it possible to share music and files among billions of users, Lamabox merely improves a user interface and addresses certain video compatibility issues. In a world of degrees, it seems that Lamabox is a far lesser threat than the software it utilizes.

Or We Could Go a Completely Different Direction

Another company has designed a completely different product to compete with Lamabox. The MuViBOXX performs similar functions but is almost a polar opposite in terms of copyright protection concerns. The MuViBOXX is locked with DRM on a proprietary Bittorrent network. But it goes even further. It does not just limit devices or licenses, it also limits human users through biometrics. Your fingerprint is actually needed to activate files. Not only does it restrict copyright piracy but it also restricts authorized users. This is probably the most severe current form of DRM.

The company producing MuViBOXX claims that it has already obtained support from one movie studio and a major record label. Which of these two technologies will utimately survive? There is at least one indication. Lamabox is currently shipping and MuViBOXX is vaporware. Pull beats push.

The Future

I conclude with more questions than answers. Technology is continually making it easier to violate copyrights. And as we have observed from the recent Sony rootkit scandal, the media producers are having difficulty keeping apace. The Lamabox is just another example of this phenomenon. Whether the courts will accept this technology has yet to be determined. To succeed in the U.S. Lamabox would do well to shed the marketing strategy of advising that downloading copyrighted movies is legal.

But it remains to be seen whether the implementation, optimization and simplification of currently available technologies into one cohesive interface renders it more "offensive" than the sum of its parts.


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