Washington Watch


High Court in Quandary Over Grokster

The Supreme Court appears to be struggling over how to prevent Grokster and similar file-sharing networks from promoting illegal copying of movies, music and TV shows while preserving the peer-to-peer (P2P) networks' potential for legitimate use.

Last week, in oral arguments on the movie industry's effort to shut down Grokster, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that legitimate new technologies could be shut down in infancy if they are initially used primarily for illegal purposes.

“What I worry about is the lawsuit coming right out of the box,” Scalia said. Several justices suggested that allowing copy- protection safeguards to overreach could have killed off other digital-media products like Apple's iPod for music files, for which significant pay services have been created.

MGM and other studios complain that 90% of the files traded P2P are illegal copies.

“Neither side will have its prayers fully answered,” conceded James DeLong, senior fellow of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, which supports keeping P2P networks free of liability unless they actively promote illegal copying.

One possibility is that the justices will order the lower court to determine whether Grokster and its siblings actively induced users to abuse its system in order to swap content files illegally, and to determine whether operators of the systems should pay damages.

ABC's Westin Rejects Wal-Mart Foes

ABC News President David Westin last week shot back a blunt “no” to 21 members of Congress who demanded he drop Wal-Mart as a sponsor for the “Only in America” segment on Good Morning America.

The lawmakers complained that Wal-Mart's sponsorship of a segment featuring inspiring stories about patriotic and hardworking America was hypocritical, given what they say is the low-price retailer's track record of paying poor wages and crushing mom-and-pop competitors.

Westin, in a letter to the officials, urged them to take their complaints to Wal-Mart and leave ABC out of the fight. “It would be inappropriate that ABC News should be used to act as your intermediary,” he wrote.

The lawmakers calling for ABC to drop Wal-Mart's sponsorship included Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who led a fight to block the building of a Wal-Mart store in his Queens district. The appeal to ABC was also backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which is opposing expansion of non-union Wal-Mart's grocery business.

“This is just another attempt by the UFCW to criticize Wal-Mart by spreading misinformation,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman.

Terror Plan Puts Pressure on TV

A new FCC plan to build an emergency-communications system robust enough to let local police and fire departments talk to the FBI and other federal officials has TV stations under more pressure than ever to exit their old analog channels.

Last week, the FCC asked public-safety officials across the country whether, in the case of emergency, they need more channels than the four they are currently slated to get as a result of TV stations' transitioning to digital.

The FCC suggested that adding a few more channels to the mix would enable a radio system hearty enough to accommodate local officials as well as the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and area hospitals.

To alleviate overcrowded conditions on emergency radio bands, the FCC already plans to turn channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 solely to public-safety departments when broadcasters go all-digital. Emergency departments can use the channels now, but only if they don't cause interference to TV stations.

Public-safety officials are asking the FCC to relax that interference protection, however. Broadcasters fear that the move is designed to create airwave clutter that will drive them away from the channels before the digital transition is complete.