As the bitter debate over computer file sharing heads toward the Supreme Court, the pro-technology camp is growing increasingly anxious.
Some technologists warn that if the court decides in favor of the music and recording industries after hearing arguments in the MGM v. Grokster case on March 29, the ruling could also stifle a proliferating set of new Internet-based services that have nothing to do with the sharing of copyrighted music and movies at issue in the court case.
Some of those innovations were on display here at the Emerging Technologies Conference, attended by about 750 hardware and software designers.
The demonstrations included Flickr, a Canadian service that has made it possible for Web bloggers and surfers to easily share and catalog millions of digital photographs.
And Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief of executive of Amazon, demonstrated a set of new features in the company's A9 search engine designed to make it extremely simple for Web users to share searches specially tailored to mine everything from newspapers to yellow pages to catalogs of electronics parts.
Software designers from iFabricate, a small Emeryville, California-based company displayed a new Web service intended to make it simple for home inventors to share instructions for complex do-it-yourself garage construction projects.
PProjects can be documented and shared with a mixture of images, text, ingredient lists, computer-animated design files and digital videos.
There was also a demonstration of the Wikipedia, a volunteer-run online encyclopedia effort that now has generated 1.5 million entries in 200 languages.
Innovative online file-sharing services like these could be harder to create in the future if the court rules that technology creators are liable for any misuse of their systems, according to technology proponents here.
"It could be a disaster," said the conference's sponsor, Tim O'Reilly, owner of the world's largest independent computer book publishing company, O'Reilly & Associates.
In briefs filed before the Supreme Court, the recording and motion picture agencies have argued that the Ninth Circuit Federal Court in San Francisco erred last August in finding that the operators of the Grokster and Streamcast file-sharing services were not legally responsible for copyright infringements committed by users of their services.
Lawyers for the music and movie industries are attempting to persuade the Supreme Court to modify its decision in the 1984 Sony Betamax decision that video recorders should not be outlawed because they could be used for many legitimate purposes besides illegally copying movies.
O'Reilly started the conference four years ago to explore so-called peer-to-peer Internet technologies, which include file sharing. It has since evolved into a meeting place for software and hardware designers interested in harnessing the Internet for various new collaborative services.
The court case could hinge in part on the entertainment industry's argument that advanced computing technology now makes it possible for consumer electronics designers to create technology that can distinguish between legal and illegal file copying.
The Internet technologists worry that, if the court accepts that reasoning, Hollywood could end up dictating the technical specifications for digital technology in a way that would choke off future innovation. In fact, they point out that peer-to-peer applications are now branching out in all directions from more basic file-sharing origins.