By Jennifer LeClaire / Top Tech News. Updated October 03, 2007.
The Recording Industry Association of America is having its day in a Minnesota court against a mom accused of digital copyright violations. The nation's first-of-its-kind case could prove to be a deterrent for digital piracy -- if the RIAA wins.
The precedent-setting case is part of the RIAA's campaign against file-sharing piracy. The RIAA is asking for as much as $3.9 million dollars, plus legal fees, from a jury it hopes will see sufficient evidence to rule against Jammie Thomas in U.S. District Court in Duluth, Minnesota.
Virgin v. Thomas puts a recording industry giant head to head with a 30-year-old woman from Brainerd, Minnesota. Virgin Records has RIAA members Sony BMG, Capitol Records, Arista Records, Warner Bros., UMG Recordings, and Interscope Records in its corner. The plaintiffs claim that Thomas distributed 1,702 copyrighted audio files on file-sharing network Kazaa in 2005.
"Plaintiffs will prove that the defendant is liable for the direct infringement of plaintiffs' copyrights because she downloaded and distributed them over the Internet without plaintiffs' authorization," several music-industry lawyers wrote in court documents. The defendant maintains her innocence.
RIAA's Zero-Tolerance Campaign
The RIAA has launched more than 20,000 lawsuits since it set out on its zero-tolerance campaign to stop digital piracy in September 2003. Some suits have settled out of court, while others were dismissed. This is the first time a case promises to go before a jury as Thomas said she has no plans to settle.
The RIAA has said these lawsuits came only after a multiyear effort to educate the public about the illegality of unauthorized downloading and about the vast libraries of music available through dozens of legitimate online services. The lawsuits are the enforcement wave of its education program.
The RIAA just initiated the eighth wave of its legal campaign earlier this month, sending 403 prelitigation settlement letters to 22 universities. The letters, which claim evidence of significant abuse of campus computer networks for the purpose of copyright infringement, give students the opportunity to resolve copyright infringement claims against them at a discounted rate before a formal lawsuit is filed.
"The enormous damage compounded with every illegal download is alarming -- thousands of regular, working class musicians and others out of work, stores shuttered, new bands never signed," Steven Marks, RIAA's executive vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. "Those who choose to ignore great legal services and the law by acquiring music the wrong way risk a federal lawsuit that could include thousands of dollars in penalties."
Music Industry's Calculated Risk
The music industry is taking a calculated risk that the case facts will be compelling to an average jury, according to Jeffrey Johnson, partner at New York City-based law firm Pryor Cashman. Johnson said he thinks the RIAA's bet is a good one.
"While the defendant may seem sympathetic at first glance, this is not a case of occasional or incidental infringement. Illegally downloading thousands of songs is not something people do innocently," Johnson said, "They know they're getting something for nothing when they do it, and regardless of how 'tech savvy' the jury is, I think they'll pick up on that."
A win for the music industry may help validate the RIAA's zero-tolerance policy and might ensure the group continues to pursue these cases. Given the fact-specific nature of the case, however -- and in particular the defendant's reliance on the "it wasn't me" defense as opposed to the "it's not illegal" defense -- Johnson said he does not believe a win for the defendant will substantially impact the pervasiveness of illegal digital downloading.