I have pulled myself out of blog purdah to tell the world about the most most important court case of the 21st century. It hasn't happened yet, and the the docket won't be filed for a few years. But when it goes to the Supreme Court, as it inevitibly will, the Justices will hold the very nature of politics in their hands.
It all starts with the humble video recorder. In the early 1980s the film and television industry lined up against home video recording, claiming that home taping would destroy great swathes of their professions. Sony, who had an interest in selling these new wonder devices ended up fighting these industries for the right to manufacture videos with 'record' buttons. It went all the way to the supreme court, and Sony won, paving the way for videos to become as common as sinks in homes across the developed world. Cory Doctorow's version of this story is much better than mine.
Two decades later, issues of recording and sharing are back on the agenda, with P2P the new tattooed poster child. But this court case isn't going to be about P2P. It's going to be about Tivo, and the genre of new device it spawned: the Personal Video Recorder, or PVR.
PVRs are devices which sit on top of your TV and do lots of wonderful things, all based on their ability to record TV and play it back. They let you pause live TV, and then unpause it when you get back from the loo. They make it easy to record programmes you might be interested in, and some even guess what you want to watch. All have one notable effect - people who own them gradually watch less and less live TV. Why bother when you've a personal archive of things you'll probably enjoy watching just sitting there waiting for you at the end of a long day? And best of all, just as with a video recorder, you can skip the adverts!
And it is these ads that will be at the heart of the court case. When you watch all your TV pre-recorded, why would you sit through the adverts, when you can skip them? The answer is, "you don't" - people overwhelmingly skip through. For advertisers, this spells disaster. And everytime someone buys a new PVR, the number of adverts being watched falls just that little bit more.
The advertising industry isn't taking this lying down, of course. It has insinuated that people who skip adverts are actually stealing the shows they help pay for. And when accusations like that are being made, you can be pretty sure the court cases are soon to follow.
There is big money on either side, and sometime in the next few years, it'll end up in the supreme court, as it did with Sony in the 80s. The issue will be simple - should it be permissable to build devices that let users skip adverts, or should they be designed so as to force users to watch at least a few. Either option is possible - it's a pure question of who wins.
So what, you ask? This is at best a consumer protection issue isn't it? This isn't case of the century, surely?
Well, yes, until you remember one thing - the US presidential canditates spent about half a billion dollars on TV advertising at the last election. TV is the default medium and motivator of US politics. It protects incumbents, raises high barriers to entry, destroys weak candidates, reaches the most people, and is the reason US politics is such a big money game. And this court case will decide whether a significant proportion of the electorate ever watches another political advert.