The Music Wars: The RIAA Trial and Our First Casualty

In Consumerism, Laws & Regulation, Misc., Music, Technology on December 6, 2007 at 2:25 pm

Jaimee Thomas is the first person to refuse to a settlement in an RIAA lawsuit, the first defendant in a file-sharing trial, and the first to be found guilty of copyright infringement by a jury of her peers . For this distinction, the single mother of two will be forced to pay her accusers the amount of $220,000. At $9,250 each, here are the 24 songs she infringed upon (from Wired.com):

  • Guns N Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”; “November Rain”
  • Vanessa Williams “Save the Best for Last”
  • Janet Jackson “Let’s What Awhile”
  • Gloria Estefan “Here We Are”; “Coming Out of the Heart”; “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”
  • Goo Goo Dolls “Iris”
  • Journey “Faithfully”; “Don’t Stop Believing”
  • Sara McLachlan “Possession”; “Building a Mystery”
  • Aerosmith “Cryin'”
  • Linkin Park “One Step Closer”
  • Def Leppard “Pour Some Sugar on Me”
  • Reba McEntire “One Honest Heart”
  • Bryan Adams “Somebody”
  • No Doubt “Bathwater”; “Hella Good”; “Different People”
  • Sheryl Crow “Run Baby Run”
  • Richard Marx “Now and Forever”
  • Destiny’s Child “Bills, Bills, Bills”
  • Green Day “Basket Case”

How much would you be willing to sacrifice for the Goo Goo Dolls? Considering that the plaintiffs had claimed she had distributed in the neighborhood of 1,702 songs through her Kazaa account, one wonders how they came to this eclectic mix of guilty pleasures (no pun intended). Also, the jury could have awarded anywhere between $750 and $150,000 in damages per song, making the amount of $9,250 seem just as arbitrary. Either way, it’s a substantial sum of money on top of already pricey legal fees, something Ms. Thompson will face on her own (from the West Central Tribune of Duluth):

“It’s been very stressful,” she [Jaime Thompson] said. “I have multi-billion dollar corporations with their own economies of scale suing me so it’s been very stressful.’’

She said the lawsuit has also affected her children. “I no longer have any disposable income whatsoever,” she said. “My disposable income used to go for CDs, but obviously not anymore. I’ve had to make some changes regarding extras for my children. All the disposable income went toward this case. I didn’t do this and I refuse to be bullied.”

Her appeal on the grounds that this constitutes excessive punnishment was recently rejected by the Department of Justice, setting a disturbing precedent for the future. The DoJ’s reasoning, surprising similar to the RIAA’s, is that infringement by an individual creates exponential damage to the copyright holder by fact of this dangerous interweb. Acting Assistant AG Jefferey Bucholtz breaks it down for us (from CNET):

Although defendant claims that plaintiffs’ damages are 70 cents per infringing copy, it is unknown how many other users–“potentially millions”–committed subsequent acts of infringement with the illegal copies of works that the defendant infringed. Accordingly, it is impossible to calculate the damages caused by a single infringement, particularly for infringement that occurs over the Internet. Furthermore, plaintiffs contend that their witnesses “testified to the substantial harm caused by the massive distribution of their copyrighted sound recordings over the Internet, including lost revenues, layoffs, and a diminished capability to identify and promote new talent…”

Since it’s “impossible to calculate the damages”, is $9,250 per song really enough? Why not $11,782.63 each? How about $25,902.17? If you’re going to make this woman responsible for the entire downfall of the music industry, if you’re going to make her take out 3 more mortgages her house and jeopardize her family anyway, why not just take her first born or a pound of flesh?

So this is the new business model? The RIAA and the Majors are betting that they can make up they’re lost revenue through suing the pants off people. It doesn’t matter if the product sucks, if we don’t listen to it or if we don’t want it, they’ll be sure to make us pay for it somehow. Who needs marketing when you have threats? High priced lawyers are a better investment than musicians, right? Wired’s interview with Universal Music CEO Doug Morris highlights the struggles going on between the ears of a lot of these old school executives, none of whom really get whats going on while still trying to reconcile the fact their audience is somehow indifferent to paying for something they hold dear. They’re digging their own graves without even knowing it. Yes, music is worth something, but people need to be convinced and lobbied more than the government, lawsuits sure as hell won’t be doing the business any favors. Radiohead’s run online will be over in a couple days, with an actual CD to follow. Initial numbers are not too encouraging, maybe 38% of people who downloaded actually paid anything and hundreds of thousands of copies were pirated off peer-to-peer eventhough it was offered free directly from the artist. However little they might have gotten, though, it’s a blessing that neither the Majors nor their RIAA lapdogs can touch a dime.


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