RIAA loses mistrial appeal

The Recording Industry Association of America has been dealt another blow in its only copyright infringement case to go to trial.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

A federal judge has denied the Recording Industry Association of America's request for an appeal of an earlier decision to grant a retrial in its copyright infringement case against Jammie Thomas.

Earlier this year a jury found that the Minnesota woman had violated copyright laws by illegally sharing more than 1,700 songs. The jury ordered the woman, Jammie Thomas, 30, to pay $220,000 to six of the top music labels.

But a few weeks after the verdict was handed down, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis threw out the verdict on the grounds that he originally misguided the jury by indicating that simply the act of making a copyrighted song available for sharing amounts to infringement. A new trial has been rescheduled for March.

In an attempt to avoid another trial, the RIAA appealed the judge's decision to declare a mistrial. But now it looks like the RIAA's latest attempt to gain a conviction for copyright infringement has been thwarted.

This case has been closely watched because Thomas is the only individual charged with copyright infringement by the RIAA who has taken her case to trial. Since 2003, many of the 26,000 persons sued by the industry association have simply settled the cases out of court by agreeing to pay a few thousand dollars. But Thomas, who has been accused of sharing music via a peer-to-peer service, Kazaa, has always maintained her innocence.

On the surface, the importance of the outcome of the Thomas case is somewhat diminished since the RIAA announced a couple of weeks ago that it is taking a different strategy to combating the sharing of illegal copyrighted music.

Instead of suing individual users, the industry association plans to work with Internet service providers. Under this new arrangement, users that the RIAA suspects of illegally sharing music will be asked to stop their activity. If the activity persists after three warnings, ISPs will then cut off broadband service.

So far, the RIAA hasn't disclosed details about how the new process will work, which has made some consumer advocates wary.

Even though the RIAA has revised its strategy toward copyright infringers, the legal questions raised in the Thomas case are very important and remain relevant to how the RIAA plans to battle copyright infringement in the future.

The main legal question yet to be answered is how to determine whether copyright laws have been violated in the digital age.

Judge Davis threw out the verdict in the case because he argued that "actual" distribution of copyrighted music must be proven for the law to be violated. Therefore, the RIAA had to prove that users downloaded the music that Thomas was making available through the peer-to-peer service. Simply making the content available is not a violation of copyright, under this reasoning.

But the RIAA has said that proving that songs have been downloaded from services like Kazaa is nearly impossible. As a result, the RIAA has long argued that making digital music available for others to download illegally is an infringement on copyright.

Over the years, judges have disagreed on this reasoning, and as a result, they have written different opinions on this issue. As a result, it's very likely that the legal issue of what constitutes copyright infringement will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court. Regardless of how the case is decided in March, it's likely that the losing side will appeal. And after the case makes its way through the federal appellate courts, it will likely end up in the highest court of the land.