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For RIAA, a black eye comes with the job

Despite negative public image, record industry group has little choice but to continue lawsuits, insiders say.

Almost everybody agrees Jammie Thomas is thumping the recording industry in a battle for hearts and minds.

The single mother of two who makes $36,000 a year was ordered by a jury last week to pay the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) . She was not accused of stealing music, but the jury found that she made 24 songs available online--allegedly for others to download. On Monday, Thomas announced that she has .

The image of a rich and gargantuan corporate entity steamrolling a woman with limited resources is etched into the minds of many onlookers, say public relations experts. So why, then, if the RIAA is taking a PR beating, is the group continuing to pursue Thomas? Why not target people who tug a little less on the public's heartstrings?

"It's usually inadvisable to turn someone into a martyr," said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm. "I would think they could have pursued someone that drew a little less empathy. What they risk is creating a long-lasting image. On the Internet, it's simple to create martyrdom (all over the world) and this is particularly damaging thing to do. It can be very harmful to a company's reputation."

Jammie Thomas
Jammie Thomas

But according to industry insiders and the RIAA itself, the group has little choice but to continue to against file sharers--bad PR or not.

"Yes, this is a form of tough love but it is a necessary one to protect the rights of artists," said Jonathan Lamy, an RIAA spokesman. "Look at the extensiveness of the coverage on Friday. Every single newspaper and TV station carried the story that a jury of Thomas' peers found her guilty of copyright violations. This sends a very clear message that if you steal music online there can be real consequences. There is a lot of deterrent value to that message becoming public."

Thomas, 30, denies file sharing. She said that she doesn't use Kazaa, the peer-to-peer service she is accused of using to make more than 1,700 songs available. In a phone interview on Monday, she said that her IP address could have been hijacked by a music pirate.

The case is quickly becoming a rallying point for the file-sharing community. Already, a site has cropped up called, started by a supporter who has never met Thomas. More than $2,500 has been raised by the site. Others have sent donations to Thomas' lawyer.

'No longer my fight'
In a phone interview with CNET, Thomas said that she never meant to become a standard bearer for the file-sharing community.

"But at this point, I really don't think I have much of a choice," Thomas said. "As soon as this case went public, it was no longer my fight. It became everyone's fight. Just because it's my name on the case, doesn't mean I'm alone. There are so many other people who have taken up the case with me."

It's hard not to be struck by just how ham-handed the RIAA's legal maneuverings have been. While old RIAA foes such as file-sharing companies Napster and Grokster may not have gained a lot of sympathy in the heartland, people like Thomas do. Even college kids running file-sharing networks on the sly in dorm rooms can look sympathetic compared with giant corporations with a reputation for overcharging customers and not sharing profits with the artists.

The RIAA's antipiracy efforts have sometimes been vilified and other times ridiculed. Even at the RIAA's attempts to take legal action in 2003 against Brianna LaHara, a then 12-year-old honors student from New York.

"Are you headed to junior high schools to round up the usual suspects?" Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked an RIAA executive during a senate hearing.

The image of a sweet-faced LaHara appeared in scores of media outlets with many publications asking how the RIAA, with its seemingly bottomless war chest and army of attorneys, could really be threatened by the likes of LaHara. The RIAA moved fast to settle the case with LaHara's mother agreeing to pay the RIAA $2,000.

But if the RIAA isn't going to stand up for its rights, who will, asks Chris Castle, a copyright lawyer and former executive with A&M Records and Sony Entertainment.

The music industry can't rely on the federal government. He points out that the Copyright Office has far less power than other regulatory bodies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission.

"The copyright office has virtually no enforcement powers," Castle said. "That's left up to the Department of Justice and they haven't done much about this problem. If the RIAA didn't do anything about piracy, then nothing would get done."

The other thing to consider is what would happen if the RIAA halted the lawsuits. Some critics say that the litigation is hardly any deterrent. They point to studies that indicate that file sharing continues to grow even though the RIAA has sued more than 26,000 people.

While it remains highly unpopular, the RIAA has a fiduciary duty to track down file sharers, whoever they might be, said Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, a company that monitors traffic to entertainment sites. He said that he's talked to many people in the industry that believe the RIAA could potentially face lawsuits from artists if they failed to protect their rights.

"They have to do everything they can to prevent piracy," Garland said. "Or else how long will it be before the estate of Cole Porter or The Beatles file suit against you. The RIAA acts as agents for hundreds of thousands of artists and for millions of songs. They have to demonstrate to the artists and also to Wall Street that they are doing everything that they can to fight piracy. You can't just say we gave up protecting their work. I don't think they have the option to do that."

In all the talk about the RIAA beating up on Thomas, Lamy wanted people to know that the RIAA doesn't choose any of the people it files suits against. There is no way for the RIAA to know anything about the people it files lawsuits against, Lamy said.

"We know someone was using a computer and IP address to distribute songs. We know information like the time they used it but we don't know anything about that person.

"We would undoubtedly be criticized if we were selective in enforcing our rights," Lamy continued. "We're not. We target theft, period."