September 25 2008

Ruling In $222,000 RIAA Case Is Overturned

And it's all overOver three days last October (posts here, here and here), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) finally won their first legal victory against a peer-to-peer user.  However, nearly one year later, the victory has been overturned, and all the parties involved are heading back to court.

For those of you who don’t remember Jammie Thomas, she is a single mother that the RIAA targeted for copyright infringement after she shared 24 songs on the KaZaA network.  After the two day trial, the case went to the jury and she was found guilty and fined $9,250 per song for a total of $222,000.  It now seems the judge in the case, Judge Michael J. Davis, has overturned the ruling of the federal jury due to an improper instruction he gave.

The situation boils down to the definition of what is and is not distribution.  Does the mere act of making a file available to a peer-to-peer network constitute distribution?  The original instruction said it did not, but a hearing was held later outside the presence of the jury where the judge finally agreed with the RIAA that it does.  This creates a mistrial situation, and the previous award is now tossed.

What is slightly curious is that in the 43 page ruling (PDF link via Ars Technica) you almost wonder if Judge Davis didn’t want to find an excuse to overturn the ruling because he felt the award was excessive.

The statutory damages awarded against Thomas are not a deterrent against those who pirate music in order to profit… Thomas’s conduct was motivated by her desire to obtain the copyrighted music for her own use. The Court does not condone Thomas’s actions, but it would be a farce to say that a single mother’s acts of using Kazaa are the equivalent, for example, to the acts of global financial firms illegally infringing on copyrights in order to profit in the securities market.

While the Court does not discount Plaintiffs’ claim that, cumulatively, illegal downloading has far “reaching effects on their businesses, the damages awarded in this case are wholly disproportionate to the damages suffered by Plaintiffs. Thomas allegedly infringed on the copyrights of 24 songs, the equivalent of approximately three CDs, costing less than $54, and yet the total damages awarded is $222,000, more than five hundred [emphasis his] times the cost of buying 24 separate CDs and more than four thousand times the cost of three CDs…

Unfortunately, by using Kazaa, Thomas acted like countless other Internet users. Her alleged acts were illegal, but common. Her status as a consumer who was not seeking to harm her competitors or make a profit does not excuse her behavior. But it does make the award of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages unprecedented and oppressive.

It would seem to this untrained legal eye that the Judge may be trying to tell the RIAA to get over itself.  I agree with the Judge that what Ms. Thomas did is illegal, but you would be hard pressed to ever say that her sharing the equivalent of three CDs could ever cost the music industry $222,000.

This is a rather large gamble, though.  There is every chance that the next jury could very well award the RIAA the original $150,000 per song they were looking for, making Ms. Thomas’ new fine a staggering $3.6 million.  My feeling is the judge may try to guide the jury to the same amount, or even less, but it still seems like a bit of a gamble to me.

I’m glad to see the RIAA can no long crow about their one and only victory they have had against file sharers thus far, and I am even happier to see a judge telling them that the judgment they are looking for is totally disproportionate to the crime.  It does concern me that Sony may get to go on the stand again and once again decree that anyone copying music from a CD they own to an MP3 file constitutes piracy, but that is a whole other kettle of fish.

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