A few short years ago, technology enthusiasts used to claim that technology moves too fast for the law to hold it back. Those predictions turn out to be overly optimistic. In fact, lawmakers trying to put a stop to one evil are likely to create dozens more with legislation about a field they don't fully understand. Vague language designed to catch potential technological workarounds can put a stop to innovation in completely unrelated areas.
The latest example of this dangerous mix of law and technology is the Induce Act, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch. Its intent—to stop downloading of copyrighted material by making peer-to-peer file trading networks illegal—is bad enough. P2P networks have legitimate uses, like the distribution of taped Senate hearings. But the language of Hatch's bill is so open-ended that many other electronic devices, from the iPod to TiVo to email-to-RSS converters, would be called into question.
The Induce Act, also known as the IICA, says that anyone who "intentionally aids, abets, induces, or procures" a copyright violation can be sued for copyright infringement. That surely applies to the file trading networks, which make it easy to find and download a free copy of any song you desire. Apple's iPod could also come under fire for its huge hard drive, which would cost about $10,000 to fill with legally downloaded music. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has prepared a sample complaint against the iPod, pointing out the dangers of the Induce Act against established, respectable companies and technologies.
Others have gone even farther in pointing out the absurdities that could result from an expansive reading of the Induce Act. Tech blogger Ernest Miller is keeping track of an Induce Act "Hit List", pointing out products and companies that might be seen to "induce" copyright infringement. Among the everyday companies on Miller's list are The New York Times, which in a recent article "painted a romantic picture of copyright infringers who violate the public performance right for films," and Lego, which lets users upload pictures to create a Lego mosaic template. One commenter even joked that the manufacturers of Silly Putty could be liable for promoting the gooey toy's ability to lift an impression off a printed page.
The Induce Act would have a definite chilling effect on technological innovation. Even if judges are not inclined to interpret it broadly, the vague language opens the door to harassing lawsuits. Companies creating multipurpose technologies would have to be prepared to defend themselves against copyright infringement allegations. To avoid that, the Business Software Alliance has proposed changes to the bill, including a limit on frivolous lawsuits and a provision for products with legitimate commercial purposes to be exempted from liability. The latter would reaffirm the Supreme Court's 1984 Betamax decision which held that the VCR maker was not responsible for copyright infringement by its customers.
Faced with so many unintended consequences, Congress needs to consider whether this solution to copyright infringement is worse than the original problem. Digital content distribution is still in its infancy, but iTunes and other legal download services are growing in popularity. The digital music landscape could change next year, or even next month, in ways that the Induce Act would be unprepared to deal with. The law can undoubtedly cut off some avenues of technological innovation. But at the same time, the tech lovers of 1999 are right—the law cannot anticipate where technology will turn next. In the worst case scenario, a bad tech law could be simultaneously stifling and irrelevant.