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At first glance, the group of twenty-somethings gathered at a bar in New York City looked like just another bunch of young professionals enjoying themselves over happy hour. But when they peeled off their business-casual blazers, revealing “Save Betamax” T-shirts, it became clear that this was no ordinary night at the bar. Instead, it was another in a nationwide series of “CopyNight” gatherings � informal discussion groups made up of what can best be described as libertarian-oriented IP aficionados. Shouting over the din of Bob Dylan and Billy Joel songs, the New York City group gossiped about the day’s big news: the U.S. Supreme Court had just heard oral arguments in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster Ltd. In that case, the justices are considering whether manufacturers of peer-to-peer file-sharing technology can be held liable for distributing software that allows users to illegally copy and distribute copyrighted music. The New York group was a lively collection of musicians, filmmakers, students, lawyers, academics and techies. Probably the most well-known person in attendance was Esther Dyson, the prominent technology consultant and commentator. Despite their diverse backgrounds, just about everyone present that night sided with Grokster and argued in favor of less restrictive copyright laws. CopyNight tries to use casual social events to foster discussion about copyright, says David Alpert, a product manager at Google and a co-founder of the CopyNight concept. “Helping people build social networks around values that matter to them gets people involved,” he says. On the night of oral arguments in Grokster, CopyNight groups met at bars in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Raleigh, Austin, Seattle, Providence and Washington, D.C. CopyNight is only one of a growing number of IP-focused grassroots organizations that often take their cues from the likes of Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig and policy organizations like San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation. Not surprisingly, some of the most active organizing has been happening on college campuses. Over the past two years, students at 14 universities � from Colby College in Maine to UC-Santa Cruz � have started “free culture” groups. After all, a July 2003 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that 72 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds pay little or no attention to copyright issues when it comes to downloading music. The so-called free culture movement grew out of a lawsuit that Nelson Pavlosky and Luke Smith, two students at Swarthmore College, won in 2004 against Diebold Election Systems. Pavlosky and Smith, members of their school’s free culture group, posted online Diebold internal memos, which suggested that the company knew about flaws in its voting machines. In a cease-and-desist letter sent to Swarthmore’s Internet service provider, lawyers for Diebold said the ISP would not be liable for copyright infringement under safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as long as it removed the posting. In a federal suit filed in California, the students sought a judicial declaration that they didn’t infringe any copyrights, an injunction against future lawsuits and monetary damages. U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ordered Diebold to pay attorneys’ fees but, because Diebold promised not to sue, Fogel concluded that the students’ other requests were moot. Since then, free culture groups around the country have weighed in on other IP-related issues, including “save the iPod” campaigns aimed against proposed federal legislation that would hold technology companies responsible for products that encourage copyright infringement. While the issue has caught on in some circles, John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, doubts that IP will take on the trappings of, say, the civil rights or environmental movements. Free culture activists argue for greater balance between copyright holders and users, an argument not so easily encapsulated in emotional sound bites. “It’s hard to make an argument against clean water,” says Palfrey. “The IP debate is just a little more subtle.” Lisa Lerer is a reporter for IP Law & Business, an ALM publication affiliated with IP magazine.

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