A New Low

The recording industry’s inquisitorial pursuit of downloaders has reached new heights – or depths.  Map Boon onto the interests represented by the RIAA and Katy onto the interests represented by the accused in this sequence from Animal House:

Boon:  Unbelievable. A new low. I’m so ashamed.  Almost sorry l missed it.
Katy:  What did you do, human sacrifice?
Boon: No, just some harmless fun.

In other words, I just picked this up at CNN.com:

“A  federal jury Thursday found a 32-year-old Minnesota woman guilty of illegally downloading music from the Internet and fined her $80,000 each — a total of $1.9 million — for 24 songs.”

That sum represents statutory damages under copyright law, based on a finding of willful infringement.  Fred von Lohmann at EFF’s Deep Links blog summarizes the Constitutional issues surrounding the proportionaliy of the offense and the remedy — and the lack thereof.

The merits, however, are only part of the story.  CNN’s URL indexes the story under the heading CRIME (http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/06/18/minnesota.music.download.fine/index.html). 

Perhaps American frat house humor isn’t the best metaphor for this pairing of outcome and rhetoric.  The case may be truly Pythonesque.  Jammie Thomas-Rasset didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.

Jammie Thomas Granted New Trial

In a recently issued opinion, Judge Davis has granted Jammie Thomas a new trial, overturning an earlier verdict holding her liable in the amount of $222,000 for file sharing music over a peer-to-peer network. The specific legal ground for the ruling was an erroneous jury instruction that merely offering a work on a peer-to-peer network is, in and of itself, infringement. Judge Davis has now concluded that without actual distribution, no infringement has occurred.

It’s hard to say whether this ruling would change the outcome if the case is tried again. If Thomas was offering songs over the Internet, there’s a pretty good chance she wound up actually distributing them to someone. At the same time, however, I wonder if the court is sending a message to the RIAA that it isn’t happy with how this case got resolved.

Judge Davis closed his opinion with a statement that Congress needs to change the statutory damages rule that resulted in the large award against Thomas. The judge asserted that the award was far out of proportion to the size of her offense, and that such large awards are really appropriate only against commercial infringers. This language is legally irrelevant to the decision at hand, but it makes me wonder if, should the RIAA choose to retry the case, the judge will take steps to hold down the size of any statutory damage claim.