Big music file-sharing penalties getting tuned out
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The award in the digital music file-sharing court case was daunting -- $1.92 million.
Liable for it is Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesota woman who a federal jury ruled Thursday willfully violated the copyrights on 24 songs. The jury awarded recording companies $80,000 for each of the violations.
Nevertheless, those who continue to illegally participate in peer-to-peer -- or P2P -- file-sharing don't have to worry about facing such a financial hit as Ms. Thomas-Rasset. The recording industry in August stopped filing lawsuits against individuals and is instead working with Internet service providers, or ISPs, to fight offenders.
Moreover, it may soon be legal for P2P file-sharing. Major record labels are discussing the possibility of a new entity called Choruss in which blanket licenses would be granted to universities and someday residential ISPs for a fee that would authorize the music swapping.
As for now, the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group that represents the U.S. recording industry, is dealing with commercial, residential and university ISPs, informing them when one of their users is illegally file sharing, said RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth. The ISPs then inform the violators and take escalating action, which usually first involves cease-and-desist letters and can escalate to loss of service.
"In our opinion, that makes a lot more sense, is more efficient and effective. We can send more notices [about violators] than we are able to file lawsuits," Ms. Duckworth said.
Before that new approach, the RIAA had filed more than 30,000 lawsuits like the one against Ms. Thomas-Rasset, but hers was the first to make it to trial. Virtually all of the other cases had been settled for payments of between $3,000 and $3,500, Ms. Duckworth said.
Actually, this was Ms. Thomas-Rasset's second civil court trial, and it turned out worse than the first. When a different federal jury heard her case in 2007, it hit Ms. Thomas-Rasset with a $222,000 judgment. The new trial was ordered after the judge in the case decided he had erred in giving jury instructions.
Outside the courtroom Thursday, she called the $1.92 million figure "kind of ridiculous" but expressed resignation over the decision.
"There's no way they're ever going to get that," said Ms. Thomas-Rasset, a 32-year-old mother of four from the central Minnesota city of Brainerd. "I'm a mom, limited means, so I'm not going to worry about it now."
Her attorney, Kiwi Camara, said he was surprised by the size of the judgment. He said it suggested that jurors didn't believe Ms. Thomas-Rasset's denials of illegal file-sharing and that they were angry with her. Mr. Camara said he and his client hadn't decided whether to appeal or pursue the RIAA's settlement overtures.
Ms. Duckworth said the industry remains willing to settle. She refused to name a figure but acknowledged Ms. Thomas-Rasset had been given the chance to settle for $3,000 to $5,000 earlier in the case.
"We are pleased that the jury agreed with the evidence and found the defendant liable. Since day one, we have been willing to settle this case and we remain willing to do so," Ms. Duckworth said.
According to market research company NPD Group, legal downloading of digital music has now surpassed illegal file-sharing. Legal downloading has risen from 16 to 22 percent of Internet users while P2P downloading has decreased from 19 to 18 percent during that same period.
Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group for consumer digital consumer rights, said RIAA may have lost more than it won in the trial when it comes to public relations.
"If you read between the lines, the recording industry is a little chagrined. They're not celebrating, saying this is what she deserved," he said. "They're sensitive this is an outrageous amount. Even people who are otherwise on their side wouldn't disagree. In some ways, this assists critics of the recording industry."
That's why something like Choruss is a much better approach than punishment in dealing reasonably with file sharing on the Internet, he said. Under the plan being discussed, universities would pay into a fund that would allow their students to "file share to their hearts content," Mr. von Lohmann said. "It's a future-looking piece. It takes policing out of this."
He said that in talking to college students, they all said they wouldn't mind paying $5 more a month in student activities fees for such a service.
"It's not that people won't pay but you can't create a system in which it is harder for them to pay than to do a free thing. At $5 a month, it will feel free to them."
Ms. Duckworth said Choruss is "an innovative way to deal with college online piracy, an interesting concept that is being shopped to different schools. All the major record labels are on board in discussing this, trying to figure out what works best."
She said the RIAA is realistic it will never completely stop illegal online sharing "because we know it's going to happen. We know there are going to be individuals who think music and content should be free.
"What we want to do is to deter casual file sharers, people who wouldn't do this all the time, and direct them to go in the right direction."
First Published June 20, 2009 12:00 am