The Verdict Is Out in Jammie Thomas Case

She wasn’t the first person to be sued by the music industry for illegally sharing digital music files, but Jammie Thomas was the first to go to court in the ongoing battle over copyrights, consumers and charges of piracy.

The 30-year-old single mother from Minnesota lost the first round last October, but Wednesday a federal judge threw out her conviction and granted a new trial while also raising bar on burden of proof for the Recording Industry Association of America.

U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis, who presided over the initial trial, made his rulings on the grounds that he gave the jury the wrong instructions before deliberations. At the time, he said the jurors only had to consider the issue of whether Thomas had made the music files available to others. He now says he should have instructed them to also consider whether anybody else had actually downloaded the copyrighted files.

The US$222,000 penalty that Thomas had to pay six record companies was excessive, Davis ruled, adding that Congress needs to set a cap on future awards that is more in line with what the actual costs of file-sharing are to the music industry.

The Next Battle

“This decision was not unexpected given the court’s previous comments,” RIAA spokesperson Jonathan Lamy told the E-Commerce Times. “Regardless of this narrow issue, a jury of her own peers unanimously found Ms. Thomas liable for copyright theft and for causing significant harm to the music community. We have confidence in our case and the facts assembled against the defendant. As with all our illegal downloading cases, we have evidence of actual distribution — an assertion this court and others nationwide have made clear constitutes infringement.”

Charges that Thomas’ music was distributed to others may not be as easy to prove as the RIAA infers, said Ernest Grumbles III, an intellectual property attorney with Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis.

“It’s obviously not impossible. They have a lot of unique software analytic methods to catch this activity,” Grumbles told the E-Commerce Times. “But this may pose a new technical or legal hurdle. Time-specific files that someone like her (Thomas) allegedly uploaded, and showing these specific files were downloaded by other specific individuals — that may make it harder for the RIAA to prove that that was occurring.”

What Are the Costs?

Davis’ insistence that Congress must set a limit on financial damages also makes this case a rarity in the music industry’s fight over piracy. “To say no, this (award) outstrips the nature of the conduct, that’s some commentary from the court that the current statutes don’t provide enough anchor to tie the effects of the conduct to the actual punishment.”

Davis said in his 44-page ruling that the $222,000 award to the music industry was 4,000 times the cost of the actual music that the jury found to be pirated. Thomas was convicted of sharing 24 songs; Davis said that was equal to what one would find on three music CD’s, or about $54. He suggested damages at more than 100 times the cost of the songs would serve as adequate deterrent for anyone thinking about uploading copyrighted songs.

“I think the court was clearly expressing concerns about the effect of the case,” Grumbles said. “This is why a court might revisit what a jury has done in this kind of circumstance if they think something excessive occurred. It is more unique for the court to comment on the state of the law.”

Bad PR for the RIAA

Even though the recording industry says it’s ready for the new trial, Grumbles said the RIAA has potentially been stripped of a potent weapon because of the judge’s decision. “I think this is a significant case from that standpoint, in the sense they have not really had to go to trial. They were using this case as a symbolic case, to hold Ms. Thomas up as some kind of example.

“There are people unhappy on both sides. It’s clearly frustrating to artists and those trying to sell music, to have people commit gross copyright infringement. The question is whether this legal tactic is going to work for them. Is it actually going to protect its business model or further alienate music buyers from these companies?”

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