Copyright case rooted in Estonia

  • 2002-08-29
  • Sara Toth

A copyright infringement case lingering in a U.S. District Court for nearly a year has finally caught up to three Estonian computer programmers who invented the software that is the basis for several disputed file-sharing Web sites.

Two years ago, Ahti Heinla, Jaan Tallinn and Priit Kasesalu, developed the software that allows computers to download music and videos through Imesh, KaZaA, Grokster and other file-sharing programs.

At any time of day, about 2.6 million people use this "peer-to-peer" software through KaZaA alone to exchange files.

This makes KaZaA even more popular than the well-known file-sharing service Napster once was.

Last year the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America sued KaZaA and other companies, accusing them of infringing artists' rights.

The Estonian software developers, who work under the entity Bluemoon in Tallinn, were not involved in the case until last month when a judge asked them to describe their software and its role in the file-sharing process.

At this point, the court is only asking the Estonian programmers to provide information. No one is accusing them of illegal activity.

Based on a Hague agreement, the Estonians will submit the requested information to a Tallinn's city court. At this point, they don't have to travel to the U.S. District Court in California.

"We are not really worried," Heinla, 30, said. "Maybe we should be, but we are not."

Heinla said he was optimistic because KaZaA, a Dutch company that is now operated by Australians, recently won a lawsuit in the Netherlands.

A Dutch appeals court ruled that KaZaA was not responsible for the copyright infringements of its users.

Unlike Napster, which relied on a central server to host the files, KaZaA only provides software that allows individuals to turn their computers into servers and directly swap files.

And because Bluemoon simply developed the software and doesn't distribute it like KaZaA does, the Tallinn-based operation plays an even smaller role in any pirating of movies and music, Heinla said.

When KaZaA founders Niklaus Zennstom, of Sweden, and Janus Friss, of Denmark, asked Bluemoon to develop file-exchanging software that did not depend on a central server, Heinla and his partners agreed because it sounded challenging.

"We did not do this because we had a political stance to promote online piracy or fight against the big companies," Heinla said.

Like all of Bluemoon's projects, it started out as an intellectual rather than a business quest, he said.

Bluemoon had, and still has, no desire to grow beyond its three founders, who began programming together 12 years ago while studying at Tartu University. They registered the entity Bluemoon Software in 1993, which produced computer games.

They changed the name to Bluemoon Interactive in 1998. Bluemoon still doesn't advertise, and it refers to itself as "a small code shop in Tallinn," rather than a company.

"Bluemoon is more like a band than a company," Heinla said. "The company just exists because of us, because we need something that lets us work professionally. We are not trying to build this into a business with investments. When they started the software project, they were aware of the controversy that surrounded file-sharing and knew that Napster was on its way out of existence.

If traditional movie and music distributors are becoming obsolete, it is not due to any specific software, but to the Internet as an open place of exchange, Heinla said. So this lawsuit and others against file-sharing software seem a bit pointless, he said.

At the same time, Bluemoon founders said they understood the movie and music industries' concerns.

"It's unnerving that a lot of activity that happens is illegal," Heinla said.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-governmental organization that promotes the use of technology is helping to pay the legal costs of Bluemoon, KaZaA and other companies involved in copyright cases.

There is not a trial date set in the case involving Bluemoon's software.