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Techsploits

Court Camp

By Annalee Newitz

IT WAS LIKE a pilgrimage, only instead of Mecca we had the Supreme Court of the United States; and instead of wandering far from home to worship, we did it to witness what our nation calls justice. The case before the Supreme Court on March 29 was MGM v. Grokster. It is the culmination of a suit brought several years ago by MGM and nearly two dozen entertainment conglomerates against two small software companies, StreamCast and Grokster, who distribute peer-to-peer file-sharing software.

But the question before the justices was not whether downloading copyrighted music and movies should be legal. It was about whether MGM could sue a company like StreamCast (maker of Morpheus) because the people using its product were infringing copyright.

Along with dozens of other people from all over the country, I flew to D.C. to demonstrate that we wanted to protect innovators against corporations. We wanted a future where peer-to-peer tech wasn't demonized, where geeks weren't liable for what people did with their inventions.

We also wanted some pizza delivered to the Supreme Court steps, goddammit. Around 9pm on Grokster eve, after smoothing out tarps and unrolling our sleeping bags, the 30-odd people who were in line for public seats in the courthouse were hungry. Seth, who had organized many of the campers on an email list, called a local pizza joint. As I chatted with a couple of ex-Nader activists and talked policy with two wonks from the Center for Democracy and Technology, I could hear Seth insisting, "We're at the Supreme Court, on the steps—yes, near the Capitol. We're at 1 First St. Yes, really. That's where the Supreme Court is."

There is free WiFi at the courthouse, so a lot of people were blogging. As I drifted off to sleep in my subzero sleeping bag, I could hear laughter up and down the line, mingled with snatches of conversations about copyright licensing, cable regulation and pirate ships. A gaggle of public interest attorneys, who waited in a separate line for people admitted to the Supreme Court Bar, showed up around 4am and watched The Life of Brian on somebody's laptop until the batteries died.

Nobody from the entertainment industry waited with us for 14 hours in the cold, on the pebbly sidewalk, with a 30 percent chance of rain. Instead, their companies paid for "line sitters," mostly homeless people who sat miserably in rickety chairs. They called their employers "worms."

Mako, who had taken the bus from New York, showed up in the early morning and offered to buy out one particularly cold and unhappy line sitter, who obligingly took Mako's 50 bucks and turned an entertainment-industry worm's spot into space for an activist.

At 7am, there was a massive line-sitter defection—dozens of them left without waiting for their worms. And that was how a bunch of Ed Felton's students from Princeton got a chance to scoot up in line and be admitted to the Grokster argument.

Around 8am, after we'd gotten our official line numbers, we raced back to our hotel room to drop off our camping gear and change into suits. I returned just in time to see Jack Valenti heading into court. "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if he would sign this Betamax tape?" asked Seth, waving an old cartridge he'd brought in honor of the 1984 Betamax decision that is the main precedent for Grokster. "Yes!" I cried, and chased after the bemused Valenti until he graciously agreed to autograph the faded label. Don't believe me? Chris took pictures. They're all over the blogosphere by now.

At the Supreme Court, the public comes last. Although we were the first to arrive, our line wasn't waved into the courthouse until after the attorneys had gone in, after the "guests" had gone in, after the press had gone in and after a seemingly gratuitous wait. In the end, only about 30 members of the public were admitted to the argument (I was No. 20). Nearly 100 people were turned away, left to mingle with the rowdy "Save Betamax" protesters who carried signs that said things like "Don't stop innovation" and "Keep your hands off my iPod."

As for what happened during the argument, you can read about that on the Internet. Yes, it was glorious and strange to hear Justice Souter use the word iPod in a sentence and to hear Justice Scalia demanding to know more about Napster. And I'm happy to report that while Justice Thomas didn't say a word, he wasn't sleeping. Was my pilgrimage worth it? Of course. But not for the thing itself but instead for the faith I found in those who waited. We are cynical and pessimistic to be sure, but we still believe. And we went to the D.C. because we haven't entirely lost hope for this nation, which promises liberty and justice for all.


Annalee Newitz (justicejunky@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd.


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From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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