This article deals with the recent victory by the RIAA over Jaimme Thomas,a single Mom making a bit more than $35K/yr. A jury found that Thomas was guilty of violating the copyrights of various musicians by publicly distributing them via peer-to-peer software and awarded $220K in damages for 24 songs whose copyrights were so violated.
What is troubling, and what has made Thomas something of a cause celebre among the anti-RIAA crowd, was that the jury did not find that any file swapping actually occurred. Rather, as a function of the instructions permitted by the judge (provided by the RIAA's lawyers and approved over the objections of Thomas' counsel), the jury could find willful violation if Thomas simply made her files available for copying, even without evidence of actual copying.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the RIAA has taken something of a PR beating for this. Asked why the RIAA pursues such law suits, especially in the face of evidence that these lawsuits have little or no impact on illegal file sharing and actually hurt the RIAA's legislative strategy, one defender of the RIAA argued that the RIAA had to file such suits to avoid legal liability.
"They have to do everything they can to prevent piracy," Garland said. "Or else how long will it be before the estate of Cole Porter or The Beatles file suit against you. The RIAA acts as agents for hundreds of thousands of artists and for millions of songs. They have to demonstrate to the artists and also to Wall Street that they are doing everything that they can to fight piracy. You can't just say we gave up protecting their work. I don't think they have the option to do that."
Like many arguments that invoke the liability boogeyman, I find this highly suspect. The notion that the estate of Cole Porter would sue the RIAA that it made a rational determination that this strategy did not further the interest of its members, and therefore left it to the discretion of individual rights holders to pursue such lawsuits, strikes me as absurd. While anyone can sue, of course, this case strikes me as such a dog that I cannot imagine it driving RIAA policy.
The RIAA files these suits not because they have to, but because they are fresh out of ideas and can't think of anything else. Rather than continue to enable them in their folly, their members and supporters should be urging them to come up with other mechanisms to ensure that rights holders get compensated.