Monday, December 27, 2010

Rights of Users to Access New and Advanced Technologies

There are number of controversial issues in the area of Copyright law, but my research concerns with the impact of copyright legislations on the rights of general users of copyrighted works and new technologies. In other words, I am focusing in this paper the controversy relating to Rights of the Copyright holders vis-a-vis Rights of the Users to access new technologies, when such technologies have potentiality to infringe the rights granted to the copyright holders under the Copyright laws.
If a new technology has the capability to be used for multiple activities, some of which may result in infringing the rights of the copyright holders, then the question arises whether users of such technology should be allowed to use that technology irrespective of the fact that there will be some incidents of copyright violations during such usages or denied the right to use the same. A simple example is the Xerox machine. It has various beneficial uses like copying or making duplicates of important documents, but at the same time it can be used for copying a book in entirety thereby violating the rights of the author of that book.      
This question assumes great significance today because the society is faced with a large number of advanced technologies like Internet and other forms of digital technologies, which have numerous beneficial usages but can also adversely affect the rights of copyright holders like authors, musicians, film makers etc. by providing the users with an easy mechanism to copy and distribute digital files to unlimited number of people at extreme rapidity, without lowering of any quality and at negligible costs.
This issue of conflict of interest has not yet been debated before the Indian judiciary, but there is every possibility that with constant evolution of technologies such questions may soon be posed before the Indian courts. When such questions do arise before the courts, it is important for the court to adopt a balancing approach between the rights of the copyright holders and the rights of the users.  
In this regard the most rational approach has been taken by the US judiciary in the two leading cases of Sony Corporation of America v. Universal City Studios (1984) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios v. Grokster Ltd. (2005).
In the Sony case a number of television production companies had sued Sony for violating their copyright protection. It was alleged that the Sony Betamax video tape recorders which enabled the users to copy copyrighted television programs for subsequent watching, infringed the production companies' right to regulate and control the manner of watching their programs and also depriving them of a potentially lucrative market for recorded television programs. The television companies did not sue individual users of Betamax recorders, but sued Sony on the ground of vicarious liability and contributory infringement of copyright law. 
Stevens J. while delivering the opinion for the majority recognized the social welfare objective of copyright law. The principle aim of copyright law is to ensure public good and reward the authors for their labor and contribution to social good. Hence copyright holders are not granted all the rights relating to their created work, a number of exceptions for social good are recognised through the fair use/fair dealing principles. 
Accordingly the private recording of television programs were justified on the ground of time-shifting, that is delaying the time of viewing a television program which a viewer was invited to watch free of charge does not amount to copyright infringement. Time-shifting increased the number of viewers and fell within the fair use exception.    
The Court further denied the claim of contributory liability of Sony corporation on three grounds - 1) Sony did not supply the viewers with copyright infringing materials, but only provided them with a recording device. The relationship between Sony and its users ended with the delivery of the recording device across the sale counter. Thus there was no direct involvement of Sony with the activities of its users. 2) Mere knowledge of the fact that its users may make unauthorized copies of copyrighted materials or knowledge thatsome users are making unauthorized copies is not adequate to make Sony corporation vicariously liable. 3) On the basis of doctrine of staple article of commerce, any equipment even if it was being used by some users for infringing purposes, so long as it is capable of other legitimate and unobjectionable purposes i.e. substantial non-infringing usages such articles should not be held liable for copyright infringement.
This principle of substantial non-infringing uses correctly balances the demand of copyright holders' claim for effective protection of their monopoly rights and the rights of the users to use advanced technologies for the betterment of their lives.
After a gap of twenty years the US Supreme Court revisited the Sony decision in the Grokster case in light of the controversy relating to users rights vis-a-vis copyright holders right to control the Internet and other related digital technologies. The Grokster and other companies had distributed a free software in the Internet which enabled easy file sharing between computers through peer to peer network (P2P network). The recording industry, film industry and television companies alleged that a large number of internet users were using the Grokster software to share a large number of copyright infringing materials like music files, movie files etc. The principle debate in this case revolved between the rights of copyright holders to retain control over their creative works and the rights of the users to use new and beneficial technologies. On the one hand strict upholding of the copyright holders' rights will limit the development of beneficial technologies and adversely affect the scientific progress in society and on the other hand easy copying through Internet and other advanced technologies can adversely affect the rights of the copyright holders and limit their creative incentive, thereby retarding the social and cultural progress of society. 
In spite of the strong arguments of the petitioners requesting the need to reconsider the Sony decision, the US Supreme Court reiterated the validity of their earlier ruling in Sony case and upheld the 'substantial non-infringing use' theory on the basis of staple article of commerce doctrine as the correct test to be adopted for determining the legality of new technologies. However the Court correctly introduced the 'inducement theory' in copyright jurisprudence in this case. If a technology, irrespective of the fact that it has both infringing and non-infringing usages, is distributed and promoted with the objective of copyright infringement it will give rise to liability for the person distributing the device for acts of infringement by third parties. 
In this case the Court recognized the beneficial aspects of P2P networks, but held Grokster liable for positive acts undertaken by it to encourage copyright infringement by its users. Unlike Sony, Grokster intentionally and actively encouraged its users to infringe copyright laws and participate in unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials. 
Thus the US Supreme Court has recognized the competing claims of the copyright holders and the consumers at large and has correctly tried to balance both. Such an approach is the right approach when deciding issues of emerging technologies which have both potential advantages and disadvantages.
The Indian judiciary is yet to face any such controversial issues but the ever increasing instances of copyright infringement in entertainment products and the constant evolution of technologies may soon bring the parties before the courts to resolve their competing rights. In a culturally rich but economically developing country like India the judiciary will need to give special attention to the needs of the society without compromising with the rights and interests of copyright holders. Unlike the US Constitution, the Indian Constitution do not specifically provide an obligation on the Parliament "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries" (US Constitution Article 1 Section 8 cl. 8) but the preamble to the Indian Constitution imposes an obligation on all organs of the State, including the judiciary, to secure to its citizens "....Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship." By virtue of this obligation it is important that the judiciary should always try to protect the interests of all the citizens in a manner which will ensure social, economic, cultural and political well being of all.