District Court Vacates Verdict and Damages in File-Sharing Copyright Infringement Case, Grants New Trial
By Dmitriy Tishyevich - Edited by Bradley Hamburger
On September 24, 2008, Chief Judge Michael Davis of the United States. District Court, District of Minnesota, issued an order in Capitol Records Inc. v. Thomas (formerly Virgin Records America, Inc. v. Thomas) vacating a jury’s October 2007 copyright infringement verdict and award of $222,000 in damages to members of the Recording Industry Association of America (“RIAA”) and granting the defendant, Jammie Thomas, a new trial. The vacated award was the first jury trial victory for the RIAA in a federal copyright infringement case against an individual since it began litigation against alleged peer-to-peer users in 2003.
In the original trial, plaintiff recording companies alleged that defendant Jammie Thomas had infringed twenty-four of their copyrighted sound recordings by downloading and making them available via the Kazaa peer-to-peer file sharing network. Judge Davis instructed the jury that the “act of making copyrighted sound recordings available for electronic distribution on a peer‐to‐peer network, without license from the copyright owners, violates the copyright owners’ exclusive right of distribution, regardless of whether actual distribution has been shown.” The jury found that Thomas had willfully infringed on all twenty-four of the plaintiff’s sound recordings, and awarded statutory damages of $9,520 per violation ($220,000 in total damages). On May 15, 2008, however, Judge Davis issued an order stating that he was contemplating granting a new trial due to the possibility that the jury instruction at issue constituted a manifest error of law. Both parties briefed the issue, and Judge Davis allowed submission of five amicus briefs.
Eric Bangeman at ArsTechnica provides a summary of the order.
Corryne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation applauds Judge Davis’ call to lower the Copyright Act’s statutory damages.
David Kravets of the Wired “Threat Level” blog notes that the decision “nullified an almost foolproof method for the RIAA,” but suggests that it simultaneously “replaced it with another” by holding that the music files downloaded by RIAA investigators can form the basis for an infringement claim.