In the first lawsuit over file sharing to make it to court, a jury ordered a woman who record labels claimed illegally shared songs to pay the labels $222,000.
The lawsuit, filed by the Recording Industry Association of America, the record label lobbying organization, accused Jammie Thomas of sharing more than 1,700 songs on the now defunct peer-to-peer file sharing network Kazaa.
The suit contended that Thomas violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by distributing songs for free that belonged to the record labels.
"We welcome the jury's decision," the RIAA said in an e-mailed statement following the decision. "The law here is clear, as are the consequences for breaking it. As with all our cases, we seek to resolve them quickly in a fair and reasonable manner.
"When the evidence is clear, we will continue to bring legal actions against those individuals who have broken the law," the statement continued. "This program is important to securing a level playing field for legal online music services and helping ensure that record companies are able to invest in new bands of tomorrow."
According to attorneys at Fish & Richardson, a law firm that specializes in intellectual property law, the verdict was a decisive win for the RIAA.
"The RIAA's got a strong track record. Now, people are going to settle faster. The RIAA has won a substantial victory," said Mark Fischer, a principal in the firm. "One of their biggest challenges has been to go after consumers. [That] has been validated by a jury. At this moment, it has seen a real validation of its enforcement."
Despite the win, Fischer acknowledged that the enforcement effort has been viewed as controversial by some.
"You're going after your consumer base," he said.
Fischer's colleague David Chidekel, also a principal at the firm, agreed.
"Under the act, all the things that the RIAA is taking the position on are absolutely justifiable under the copyright law," Chidekel said. "Some people say that the copyright law is antiquated for what happens in the real world.
Other people say, 'What are you talking about? The real world is when you rushed out all the CDs to make money. You purposely decided not to encrypt them.'"
Currently, many songs sold online have some form of digital rights management, or DRM, a type of software attached to the song that prevents the file from being copied or transferred. Recently, however, some record labels, most notably EMI/Capitol, have experimented with selling some songs DRM-free.
While in some ways the copyright lawsuits and DRM experimentation may seem connected, according to Chidekel, they're still separate issues.
"[Capitol-EMI says] 'We have nothing to lose. Why are we fighting this DRM thing, which is anti-consumers? Let's try a way to encourage [people] to buy music,'" Chidekel said. "No one wants to sit there for three hours and find it on a peer-to-peer site."
"There's the legal precedent," Chidekel said, "and [that's] how a record label is going to come up with a business model to adjust to the realities on the ground."
Despite the win, according to Ray Beckerman, a partner at the law firm Vandenberg & Feliu and the brains behind the blog Recording Industry vs. the People, which chronicles the RIAA's efforts, Thomas has grounds for an appeal.
According to reports, the judge instructed the jury that for Thomas to be found guilty, the RIAA needed to prove only that the files were made available on Kazaa, not that anyone copied them. Beckerman said that was a mistake.
"I think there's one major error by the judge -- the jury instructions. It flies in the face of 40 years of case law. ... If she were to lose, she would have a great appeal," he said. "Somehow they sold the judge. Just having the shared files is a copyright infringement."
In his closing argument, Thomas' lawyer Brian Toder argued that the labels never proved that Thomas physically shared the files.
"We don't know what happened," he reportedly said, according to The Associated Press. "All we know is that Jammie Thomas didn't do this."