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Minn. woman takes on record industry in trial

She refused to settle over music downloads.

Associated Press
Published October 2, 2007


MINNEAPOLIS - Four years and more than 26,000 lawsuits after the recording industry began suing alleged music pirates, one of them is finally going to trial.

Jammie Thomas of Brainerd, Minn., is accused of illegally sharing 1,702 songs that ranged from Enya to Swedish death metal. Her attorney wants the record companies to prove that she actually shared those songs, and that they own the copyright to them in the first place.

The case is important because it's the first chance for both sides to test their arguments before a jury. Jury selection starts today in a federal courtroom in Duluth, Minn., with opening statements expected soon after.

Those targeted by the record industry lawsuits generally settle for a few thousand dollars. "We think that speaks to the clarity of the law here," said Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America.

Lawyers for the defendants say settlements are common because a trial would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Attorney Brian Toder said Thomas was determined to fight the lawsuit rather than settle. He declined to make her available for an interview.

"She came into my office and was willing to pay a retainer of pretty much what they wanted to settle for," he said. "And if someone's willing to pay a lawyer rather than pay to make it go away, that says a lot."

Thomas is at risk for a very expensive judgment. The RIAA lawsuit seeks damages under a federal law that allows $750 to $30,000 for each copyright violation - which adds up to at least $1.2-million in Thomas' case.

"We repeatedly offer out-of-court settlements far less than what the law allows," Lamy said. The lawsuits aim to "communicate that there are consequences for breaking the law and encourage fans to turn to legal online services."

In addition to 26,000 lawsuits, the RIAA has sent 4,000 pre-lawsuit letters, Lamy said.

In 2001 the recording industry convinced a federal judge to shut down Napster, which has since reopened and now charges users for music. But file-sharing programs quickly emerged to take Napster's place. Whereas Napster had made copyrighted music available on its own computers, the file-sharing programs simply pointed users to files that were available elsewhere. The result has been the same: Millions of songs downloaded for free instead of purchased legally.

So the recording industry branched out and began naming individual file-sharing users in September 2003.

The RIAA says the lawsuits have helped, but it also acknowledges that the number of households that have downloaded music with file-sharing programs has risen from 6.9-million in April 2003 (before the lawsuits) to 7.8-million in March 2007, according to industry tracking.

"I think by most any metric you choose it's been a failure," said Fred von Lohmann, the senior intellectual property attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group.

He questioned whether the lawsuits are much of a deterrent. Tens of thousands of lawsuits are still a small percentage of the millions of music downloaders.

"The vast majority of people will never know anyone who's gotten sued for this," he said.

The record companies suing Thomas include Virgin Records America Inc., Capitol Records Inc. and Warner Bros. Records Inc.

On Feb. 28, the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group of the record business, accused 400 students at 13 universities, including 31 at the University of South Florida, of illegally sharing and downloading tens of thousands of songs. According to the RIAA, those 31 USF students had shared 17,568 songs.

In partial response, USF cut a deal with Ruckus Network Inc. that allows its students online access to more than 3-million songs. All free. All legal. USF said a two-year deal took effect last month.

Ruckus is a college-only music and media service that already is in use at more than 120 colleges and universities across the country, including Duke, Princeton, Georgia Tech, UC-Berkeley and Penn State.

According to USF, Ruckus offers free access to music by such popular musicians as Timbaland, Fergie, Fall Out Boy and Kanye West, all on the service's recent "most played" list, as well as catalog artists including the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Al Green, Bob Marley and jazz artist John Coltrane.

[Last modified October 1, 2007, 23:40:15]

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