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Minnesota woman fined $222,000 for music piracy gets new trial

But ruling in RIAA case unlikely to change outcome, says defense lawyer

September 25, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A federal judge in Minnesota yesterday ordered a new trial in a copyright-infringement case involving a woman who last fall was told by a jury to pay $222,000 to various record companies for illegally copying and distributing 24 songs.

In doing so, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis also rejected a key argument used by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the Minnesota case and numerous others — namely, that the mere act of making music available for download in a shared computer folder constitutes illegal distribution.

Davis' ruling is being seen as a setback for the RIAA's controversial campaign against music piracy, especially since he is now the third federal judge to have flatly rejected the trade group's "making available" argument. What isn't clear, though, is the extent to which his ruling will actually benefit the defendant in this particular case.

The litigation in question, called Capitol v. Thomas, involves Jammie Thomas, a Minneapolis resident who was sued by various record companies last year for allegedly copying a total of 1,702 songs and then making them available for distribution over the Kazaa file-sharing network. The case focused on 24 of the songs, and after a four-day trail, a jury found Thomas guilty of copyright infringement and ordered her to pay $222,000, or $9,250 per song, to the infringed parties.

Davis, who presided over the trial, overturned the verdict yesterday, saying that his instructions to the jury were unclear on the question of whether making music available for download by itself constitutes infringement. In a 44-page ruling, Davis said his subsequent examination of the word distribution under the U.S. Copyright Act and other relevant statutes clearly showed that illegal distribution can occur only if there was actual dissemination of music.

The RIAA contended that Thomas had infringed copyrights simply by putting the songs into a shared folder on her computer that could have been easily accessed by any other Kazaa user. But, Davis wrote, "if simply making a copyrighted work available to the public constituted a distribution, even if no member of the public ever accessed that work, copyright owners would be able to make an end run around the standards for assessing contributor copyright infringement."

Coming on the heels of similar rulings by other judges in cases called Atlantic v. Howell and London-Sire v. Doe, the decision by Davis further undermines one of the pillars of the RIAA's effort to pursue alleged copyright infringers, said Corynne McSherry, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group in Washington.

"What this means as a practical matter is that they are going to have to invest additional time and money to actually show that distribution has taken place," McSherry said. "If they allege something, they actually have to show it happened." The RIAA's strategy of trying to equate alleged intent to distribute with actual distribution clearly isn't not working, she added.

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