News

Jury finds woman liable for $440,000 in illegal music downloads

Larry Oakes
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

DULUTH, Minn. -- In a verdict the recording industry praised as a warning to people who illegally download and share songs on the Internet, a federal jury in Duluth on Thursday found that a Brainerd, Minn., woman violated the copyrights of six recording companies and should pay them $222,000.

The jury of six men and six women deliberated less than five hours before deciding that Jammie Thomas, operating under the user name "Tereastarr" on the Kazaa file-sharing network, copied or distributed all 24 songs for which the companies sought compensation, and it set damages at $9,250 per song.

This was the first case of its type to go to trial, and whether such verdicts will change the habits of many music downloaders or help alter downward trends in the recording industry is uncertain. Richard Gabriel, lead attorney for the industry on the case, seemed to acknowledge as much in his closing argument to the jury.

"People who do this on Kazaa don't think they're going to get caught, and with the millions of them out there, the odds are slim we're going to catch them all."

Thomas, a single mother of two who works for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, steadfastly denied downloading or distributing any music and declined to comment as she left the courthouse with her attorney, Brian Toder of Minneapolis. Asked if they're considering an appeal, Toder replied: "We haven't talked about it."

In Washington, D.C., the Recording Industry Association of America issued a statement that the jury's decision affirms "that the law is clear, as are the consequences for breaking it. . . . We will continue to bring legal actions against those individuals who have broken the law."

The association, which says its members have lost billions of dollars to illegal sharing in recent years, said curbing the practice is important to "ensure that the record companies are able to invest in new bands of tomorrow."

The trial, which began Tuesday, was the first to date stemming from more than 26,000 suits the industry has brought since it began a crackdown on individual file-sharers in 2003. Most violators who are targeted pay a few thousand dollars to settle their cases before trial, industry officials say. Thomas chose to go to trial.

Gabriel said his clients hope that most other defendants still will choose to settle and pay up.

He called the award "a big verdict" but added that the dollar amount and even whether it can be collected aren't as important as the warning the verdict could send.

"This does send a message, I hope, that downloading and distributing copyrighted material is not OK," Gabriel said on the courthouse steps to a group of reporters that included representatives from Wired magazine and other national publications and blogs that cover Internet issues.

Jennifer Pariser, head of litigation and antipiracy for co-plaintiff Sony BMG Music Entertainment, testified during the trial that the industry has spent more on its crackdown than it has gained but hopes the deterrent effect of the program ultimately will save the industry.

"It is important for Sony BMG to combat this problem," Pariser testified. "If we don't, we don't have a business."

The jury could have awarded damages as high as $150,000 per song. Though the companies limited their case to 24 songs for what they called simplicity's sake, witnesses testified that an Internet sleuth hired by the industry caught Tereastarr one night in February 2005 making 1,700 illegally downloaded songs available to the 2.3 million Kazaa users on the network at that moment.

Thomas admitted in testimony that she's used the name Tereastarr on several Internet sites and on multiple e-mail addresses. She also admitted listening to as many as 60 of the artists who produced the 1,700 songs she was accused of sharing.

But Thomas maintained she wasn't the Tereastarr on Kazaa that night in 2005, despite testimony that Tereastarr's Internet Protocol address and other identifying information captured by SafeNet, the industry's sleuth, matched identifications assigned to Thomas' computer and modem.

Toder argued that she was the victim of a hacker who successfully "spoofed" such identifying data to make it appear she was illegally sharing files, though an expert for the plaintiffs said there was no evidence of that in the captured data.

Other testimony showed that after being informed she was being sued, Thomas offered her hard drive for inspection, saying it would prove she was innocent. But experts discovered it was a new hard drive, replaced after SafeNet warned her not to share copyrighted material.

Jurors declined to comment.

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