Judge sets aside RIAA win in Jammie Thomas case

The Minnesota woman who lost the only RIAA copyright-infringement case to go to trial thus far had her verdict set aside Wednesday by the judge who originally oversaw the case.

District Court judge Michael Davis took the remarkable step of vacating the verdict reached on Capitol v. Thomas in his very own courtroom. The judge's 44-page decision is based on his conclusion that he did give the jury improper instruction as to whether the law disallows making files available for distribution, as Ms. Thomas allegedly did when she saved songs in a folder that was visible to peer-to-peer networks.

Plaintiffs representing the Recording Industry Association of America claimed that dropping the 24 contested tracks into a folder on her computer was exactly the same as actively distributing them. By that theory, therefore, RIAA's investigators had no need to prove that anyone ever downloaded those tracks from her. Judge Davis originally agreed and told the jury -- which last October found Ms. Thomas guilty and fined her $9,250 per track -- not to worry that the RIAA didn't prove that downloading occurred.

But after the trial, as both sides prepared to re-join in the appeals process the battle they've been fighting since April 2006, Judge Davis had more time to consider the case law. In May he made it known that he believed he may have committed a manifest error of law and was thinking of granting a new trial. That's what happened on Wednesday.

Since the trial phase now begins again, Judge Davis didn't rule on the hefty liability and statutory damages penalties from the last trial, but he did have some strong words for Congress about the state of the Copyright Act when it comes to peer-to-peer network cases such as this one, where the defendant clearly had no wish to turn a profit or build a business based on her purloined tracks:

"The Court would be remiss if it did not take this opportunity to implore Congress to amend the Copyright Act to address liability and damages in peer-to-peer network cases such as this...The Court does not condone Thomas's actions, but it would be a farce to say that a single mother's acts of using Kazaa are the equivalent, for example, to the acts of global financial firms illegally infringing on copyrights in order to profit in the securities market." Davis was referring there to Lowry's Reports Inc v. Legg Mason, one of the cases the RIAA cited to make their play for large statutory damages.

The RIAA was quoted in some reports as saying the decision was "not unexpected," but this song may be all too familiar to them by now. Courts in Arizona and Massachusetts have previously disputed the association's claim that making tracks available is the same as distributing them. A New York court, on the other hand, has sided with the RIAA's take on the matter.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Corynne McSherry, in a post to the EFF's Deeplinks blog, said that the Foundation "applauds Chief Judge Davis's thorough rejection of the RIAA's effort to rewrite copyright law and thereby avoid the trouble of actually proving any infringement has occurred. And we wholeheartedly endorse the court's call to amend the Copyright Act's oppressive damages provisions." The EFF was one of the organizations that briefed Judge Davis after he expressed his original concerns about his jury instructions.

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