In what appears to be the first such occurrence, the recording industry must foot nearly $70,000 in legal bills incurred by an Oklahoma woman whom it unsuccessfully accused of "vicariously" aiding copyright infringement.
Until Monday's ruling in this case, called Capitol v. Foster, the Recording Industry Association of America had never been ordered to pay attorneys' fees as part of its ongoing battle against allegedly illicit file swapping, according to attorney Ray Beckerman, who has been tracking such suits at the blog Recording Industry vs The People.
The RIAA, for its part, said in a statement sent to CNET News.com Tuesday: "We respectfully believe that this ruling is in error and is an isolated occurrence."
Lawsuit targets have been unsuccessful in recovering such fees in at least five other recent cases.
The RIAA's suit against Deborah Foster began in November 2004, when it claimed evidence that an IP address associated with her Internet service provider account was engaging in illegal file sharing. Foster repeatedly asserted she had no knowledge of such activity, and in 2005, the RIAA expanded its complaint to include her adult daughter, Amanda. Because Amanda failed to defend herself against the complaint, the RIAA won a judgment against her by default.
The RIAA continued to pursue its claims against Deborah Foster until U.S. District Judge Lee West in Oklahoma City dismissed them last July. The judge went on to find Foster was eligible for attorneys fees, but the RIAA called for further proceedings to determine the amount.
Foster requested $105,680.75, but the judge concluded in a lengthy 14-page analysis of her itemized expenses and other billing materials that she was eligible only for $68,685.23.
The case was only one of thousands of lawsuits filed against university students, teenagers and grandmothers by the recording industry in its multiyear campaign against peer-to-peer file sharing. But Foster's quest for attorneys fees after her case was dismissed drew a friend-of-the-court brief from advocacy groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union and Public Citizen.
The groups argued that the RIAA has effectively bullied innocent parties into settling by offering "a carefully chosen sum that is substantially smaller than the legal fees required to fight the accusations." The organization has also been known to get the identity of its targets wrong in the past.
"A fee award would encourage innocent accused infringers to stand up and fight back against bogus RIAA claims, deter the RIAA from continuing to prosecute meritless suits that harass defendants it knows or reasonably should know are innocent, and further the purposes of the Copyright Act by reaffirming the appropriate limits of a copyright owner's exclusive rights," they wrote.
The RIAA on Tuesday defended its handling of the Foster case.
"Our interest in these cases is enforcing the rights of the record companies and artists, while fostering an online environment where the legal marketplace can flourish and the music industry can invest in the new bands of tomorrow," the group said in a statement. "In the handful of cases where the person engaging in the illegal activity in the household is not the person responsible for the ISP account, we look to gather the facts quickly and do our best to identify the appropriate defendant."