RIAA Wins Lawsuit, May Be the Big Loser
By now, you've probably heard that the RIAA has successfully sued the Minneapolis woman accused of illegally downloading music - to the tune of $1.92M or $80,000 per song. As reported by the Associated Press on Friday, Jammie Thomas-Rasset was found found guilty of violating the copyrights on 24 songs in a retrial (in the original trial, the results were the same, except the damages were much lower--$222,000, or $9,250 per song). In any event, the damage amount seems rather excessive, especially since those same 24 songs (by Gloria Estefan, Journey, Sheryl Crow, and Green Day, among others) can be had for under $25 on iTunes. If the RIAA thinks they're about to get paid, all we can say is "Don't. Stop. Beee-lie-viiinnnnn'."
"There's no way they're ever going to get that," Thomas-Rasset reportedly said, adding she found the figure "kind of ridiculous."
The case is the only one of its kind to go to trial - approximately 30,000 similar lawsuits have been settled out of court for about $3,500 each. Thomas-Rasset had reportedly been offered a settlement in the $3-$5,000 range, but chose not to settle. Evidence against her seemed weak, since there was no way to prove that any of the songs she posted on Kazaa had been downloaded by others, or that she had been solely responsible for the downloading. Apparently, the jury didn't believe her excuses - at various times, she claimed her kids or ex-husband could have posted the songs. Whoopsy.
According to a statement by spokesperson Cara Duckworth on the RIAA website, the labels are still willing to settle for a lesser amount: "We appreciate the jury's service and that they take this as seriously as we do. 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."
Although the RIAA has stopped suing individuals accused of inviolate acts online--their strategy has shifted to targeting Internet Service Providers--about 10 cases remain currently unsettled. There's some speculation that the victory over Thomas-Rasset could result in higher settlements in those cases. But is this really as big a win for the major labels as headlines might make it seem?
Not really, says radio industry guru Jerry Del Colliano. "Despite suing 30,000 people over the past five years, the RIAA has not stopped illegal file sharing," he points out. "In fact, file sharing has increased and continues to proliferate at a rapid pace. That's why the record labels and their legal arm, the RIAA, by and large lost in court [on Thursday, June 18]. The labels are certainly not going to collect on Thomas-Rasset's judgment. File sharing continues to elude the labels' ability to control it. And all those poor artists are still going to get screwed by a record label near them someday."
The only way for the labels to stop the bleeding, Del Colliano believes, is "sue everybody under the age of 30. Everybody."
However, as Billboard reported last Saturday in an article picked up by Reuters, "the sheer size of the damages could lead to a backlash against an industry that is already portrayed in some quarters as overreaching." Copyright lawyer Ben Sheffner noted that "Sony BMG attorney Wade Leak, who testified at the trial, said he was 'shocked' by the damages award."
ZDNet entertainment law blogger Richard Koman says the trial has become a "public relations fiasco" for the RIAA, while Sheffner says "the Thomas-Rasset verdict provides a very human face to the argument." And, as we all know, the record labels are run by Matrix-esque suits who are anything but human. Who couldn't sympathize with a Midwestern single mom who happens to be a music fan? (Besides a jury given very explicit instructions which seemed to favor the RIAA, that is.) Thomas-Rasset is from Brainerd, MN--a place seemingly ripped from a Coen Bros. movie--and it's probably pretty obvious that she doesn't have almost two million dollars laying around under the cushions of her couch.
The danger to the labels, Sheffner argues, is that the damages in this case are so over the top, they could erode some of the RIAA's traction with Congress: "the Minneapolis verdict could well lead to a legislative move to reduce the damages awards available against individual infringers like Thomas-Rasset."
So the end result is that not only have the major labels not stopped file sharing, but they may have dealt a crushing blow to themselves in the court of public opinion - the one that really matters. Way to go, RIAA.