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High-Tech Tension Over Illegal Uses

Supreme Court Will Consider Devices That Help Users Copy, Share and Steal

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page E01

In 2002, a young software programmer in Seattle named Bram Cohen solved a vexing Internet problem: how to get large computer files such as home movies or audio recordings of music concerts to travel rapidly across cyberspace.

Among the benefits of the invention, called BitTorrent, was that millions of users could quickly see lengthy amateur videos documenting the devastation of the December tsunami in the Indian Ocean, helping to spur an outpouring of charitable aid.

Elliott Frutkin, chief executive of Time Trax Technologies of Gaithersburg, said that while his product is in line with the law, some users of technology are bound to push legal boundaries. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

The Peer-to-Peer Family: BitTorrent allows Internet users to share files at a faster clip than its more traditional peer-to-peer cousins. This graphic shows how it works.

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But BitTorrent also is wildly popular because the technology makes it easier to freely trade Hollywood movies and television shows, putting it in the cross hairs of the entertainment industry.

Increasingly, that same tension surrounds a dazzling new generation of high-tech products and services that help people copy, customize and increase the portability of digital works, sparking a sharp legal debate: How should courts view technologies that have beneficial uses but also are heavily used for illegal acts?

Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on whether a file-sharing service named Grokster should be held liable for the millions of people around the world who use it to illegally trade music, movies and software.

The entertainment industry is asking the court to rule that even though Grokster itself does not engage in stealing files, the service is responsible because it is predominantly used for theft and has done nothing to try to stop that use.

The prospect that the court might adopt this legal reasoning is sending shudders through the technology and consumer electronics communities. Hundreds of existing products could be threatened, they say. And they fear that new products, and early funding, will die in the crib if the gear might be co-opted by people wishing to use it improperly.

"If it's so risky for me to try out new things or put new things on the market, you are really going to devastate people's willingness to innovate," said Elliott Frutkin, chief executive of Time Trax Technologies Corp., a Gaithersburg start-up.

His company's hardware and software turn individual songs or entire programs from XM and Sirius satellite radio broadcasts into digital files that can be stored on a computer, burned to a CD or transferred to portable players like Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod.

Frutkin said his product safely falls on the legitimate side of current law and regulations. But he also knows that many users of technology, especially those who are the quickest to latch onto new gadgets and services, may be willing to push legal boundaries.

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