RIAA wins key victory; accused file sharer must pay $220,000

Federal jury orders woman to pay $9,250 for each song she shared online. EFF says copyright attorneys already lining up to help should there be an appeal.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
5 min read

UPDATE at 8:46 p.m. PDT: A Minnesota woman must pay $220,000 to six of the top music labels after a federal jury found on Thursday that she violated their copyright.

Accused of encouraging the illegal sharing of more than 1,700 songs, Jammie Thomas, 30, elected to fight it out with the recording industry instead of settling out of court for far less money. The ensuing legal battle marked the first time the recording industry has argued a file-sharing case before a jury.

Since 2003, many of the 26,000 persons sued by the Recording Industry Assoc. of America (RIAA) have avoided litigation by agreeing to pay a few thousand dollars. Thomas, who could not be reached for comment, has always maintained her innocence. Accused of sharing music through the use of peer-to-peer service, Kazaa, she told the jury that she didn't even own a Kazaa account.

"This woman found lawyers who tried to make her the Joan of Arc of illegal downloading. And are they going to write the check?"
--former music exec Chris Castle

The jury didn't buy her argument. Thomas was ordered to pay $9,250 for each of the 24 songs that the RIAA concentrated on. She was initially accused of sharing 1,702 songs. The decision is important in that it sends a message to file sharers that Internet anonymity won't protect them from lawsuits, said Chris Castle, a copyright attorney and longtime music industry executive.

Castle said the Web makes it simple to hide. Proving who was sitting at a computer at any given time is very difficult for copyright owners. What is precedent-setting about this case is that the jury decided it doesn't matter who was sharing music on Thomas' computer.

"The answer that the court gave was 'It's your account, you're responsible,'" Castle said. "'It's your screen name. You pay the bills. It's in your house. You are on the hook for it.'"

This is likely not the end of the case, according to Fred von Lohmann, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for Internet users. Late Thursday evening, von Lohmann said that he had heard from several copyright attorneys who had expressed interest in representing Thomas should she want to appeal the decision.

"There are a lot of copyright lawyers who would be interested in helping her if she wants to continue this," von Lohmann said. "I'd imagine that she doesn't want to pay $200,000. We'll see what she wants to do."

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The recording industry has claimed that Internet piracy has cost the industry billions of dollars. Ever since the original Napster emerged in the late 1990s, the RIAA has been playing--and some say losing--a game of cat and mouse with file sharers.

The RIAA has always said that suing individuals is a last resort. The group battles file sharing through a combination of tactics, including educational programs and taking legal action against sites that help file sharers locate unauthorized music files.

When the RIAA does sue individuals, any money it receives from settlements and judgments are generally reinvested into the group's antipiracy program, said Jonathan Lamy, an RIAA spokesman. "This is not a money-making venture," he said.

About the judgment Lamy said: "This decision affirms what we've said all along. This kind of action is illegal and when people break the law there can be real consequences."

Cindy Cohn, EFF's legal director, called the verdict "heartbreaking" and said it was proof of how out of step damages for copyright law have become.

"The laws were written for pirates, guys pressing scores of DVDs," Cohn said. "I think this judgment is a clear indication that damages for copyright laws need to be adjusted to reflect today's reality. A mom in her home isn't the same as a pirate, but the copyright law doesn't see any difference."

On the question of an appeal, Ira Rothken, who has defended dozens of companies accused of encouraging copyright violations, noted that the jury made its decision without finding that Thomas had actually shared files. Jurors ruled against Thomas based on the fact that she had only made files available.

"That may be a basis for an appeal," said Rothken, who is currently defending TorrentSpy, a search engine accused by the movie industry of violating copyright. "There are lots of people who theoretically make things available unintentionally. It happens all the time, whenever you deep link and there is something out there that you are not aware of. Availability alone may not be enough to show copyright infringement."

As to whether the court's decision will discourage file sharing, people from both sides of the copyright argument, said "no."

"This lawsuit campaign is misguided," Cohn said. "I would predict that this would have zero effect on the people using file sharing networks. The record industry has sued over 20,000 so far and there's been no slow down. We may see a temporary drop in the near term but I would predict that the levels would be back within six months."

But that's not the point, said Castle, the attorney and former record-industry executive. He said the music industry has no interest in bankrupting music fans but has a duty to curb the theft of its property. He predicted that the RIAA will not require Thomas to pay the full amount of the jury award.

He then called on EFF and other file-sharing supporters, who he accuses of egging Thomas on, to help pay the damages.

"This woman found lawyers who tried to make her the Joan of Arc of illegal downloading. And are they going to write the check?" Castle said. "This woman doesn't know the law. What she knows is she was downloading and someone comes to her and says 'Let's fight back.' You find some lawyer to take the case and all of a sudden the music stops and there's no chair for her. This person has been hoodwinked by people who don't have her best interest at heart."

Angered by Castle's statements, Cohn responded that any suggestion that anyone affiliated with EFF tried to convince Thomas to do anything is "a lie." She also said that it isn't EFF trying to get $220,000 from Thomas.

"We help people get lawyers and we tell people they should make those decisions with their lawyers," Cohn said. "We're on the side of the people being sued."