Judge Tosses Out $222,000 Verdict Against Mom Accused Of File Sharing

The only jury verdict against a file-sharer has been thrown out by U.S. District Judge Michael Davis of Duluth, Minnesota, who declared a mistrial because he had committed “manifest error of the law” by instructing the jury that “that the recording industry did not have to prove anybody downloaded the songs from Thomas’ open Kazaa share folder.”

Davis has now ordered a retrial.

From Wired’s Threat Level blog:

The RIAA, which is the music industry’s lobbying and litigation arm, fought hard to keep Jury Instruction No. 15 in play. The group told the judge that copyright infringement on peer-to-peer networks is implied, and that it shouldn’t have to provide proof of an actual transfer — because it’s impossible.

“Requiring proof of actual transfers would cripple efforts to enforce copyright owners’ rights online – and would solely benefit those who seek to freeload off plaintiff’s investment,” RIAA attorney Timothy Reynolds said in a court filing.

The judge also took issue with the amount of the verdict.

“While the court does not discount plaintiffs’ claim that, cumulatively, illegal downloading has far-reaching effects on their businesses, the damages awarded in this case are wholly disproportionate to the damages suffered by plaintiffs. Thomas allegedly infringed on the copyrights of 24 songs -? the equivalent of approximately three CDs, costing less than $54, and yet the total damages awarded is $222,000 – more than 500 times the cost of buying 24 separate CDs and more than 4,000 times the cost of three CDs.”

Judge Declares Mistrial in RIAA-Jammie Thomas Trial [Wired Threat Level]
(Photo: AP)

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  1. Bladefist says:

    Finally a judge not on the RIAA/Contributors payroll. Glad to hear it, maybe they will go away now. Nah. Probably not.

    • @Bladefist: To be clear, This is the same judge that ruled against her and awarded that $222,000

      So more of a “come to his senses.”

      It is also worth noting that the vacating of this award moves the RIAAs “Trial cases won counter” back down to zero. That’s right, the RIAA has now gotten zero victories from cases that have gone to trial (it is releveant however to note that many cases are still in progress).

      • Jesse says:

        @Bladefist:

        Yeah, I’m sure this fight will continue for a long time with the issue possibly ending up in the US Supreme Court, especially if there is disagreement in different Federal Circuits.

        • Bladefist says:

          @Jesse: This side of the government isn’t my strong suit. If she won against the RIAA in this battle, wouldn’t that mean the other cases would have to have the same outcome?

          I didn’t think one judge could contradict another unless they went down the proper channels

          • BigBoat says:

            @Bladefist: There are horizontal and vertical judiciaries, on multiple “tracks”. Obviously the highest is the U.S. Supreme Court, and the bottom is generally your local muni. A judge on the same horizontal can disregard a prior court’s decision, but it can be rare. It does not necessarily mean reversible error, and if there was an appeal, a higher court will affirm or reverse based on the ruling’s merits.

            Courts are only really bound by rulings above them, and only on the same track. For example, in Washington state, a U.S. district court would be beholden to rulings from the 9th circuit court of appeals(and U.S. Supreme Court of course). They would not be bound by a ruling from a 4th circuit court of appeals. A 9th circuit court of appeals would also not be bound by a 4th circuit court of appeals. These rulings would be offered as persuasive authority, but again, courts would not be restricted to following them.

            Hope that helps.

          • Bladefist says:

            @Bladefist: Yea it does. Thanks. Makes sense too, considering some local government could make some obscene ruling

          • ClickClickThud says:

            @Bladefist: No. Judges make legal rulings, and they are only bound by the precedents of the appellate courts that are above them – each district court answers to one appellate circuit, all of which answer to the Supreme Court.

            The jury makes factual decisions, answering the factual questions as framed by the judge, e.g.: “Do you find that the defendant downloaded the copyrighted works of the plaintiff?”

            This judge reversed himself – unusual move, BTW – on a legal decision about jury instructions – in other words, how the questions were framed to the jury. That’s why a new trial is required. He also took the extra step of condemning the excessive damages amount calculated by the jury – not because the jury did anything wrong, but because he thinks the law allows for such exceedingly high damage awards even when the actual damages suffered by the RIAA are guesswork at best.

      • rugman11 says:

        @valarmorghulis: Actually, it was a jury that found her guilty and awarded the RIAA $222,000, mostly because the judge said that the RIAA did not have to provide proof that someone had downloaded the songs, only that they had been placed in an open folder. This is a huge decision in that the judge basically said that the only the RIAA can go after someone is if they can prove someone downloaded songs from them, but I’m not sure this decision counts as precedent for other cases.

    • jonworld says:

      @Bladefist: @Bladefist: I don’t have any problem at all with people downloading from file sharing networks. Think about how much your favorite musicians get paid. Think of all the good things they do for you. Now think about how much your doctor or teachers get paid and think again of all the benefit you’ve gotten from them. My point is, the artists who made the music can afford to loose a few dollars from illegal downloading.

      • PyreBorn says:

        @jonworld: not only that (the money part), personally, I buy more products after I’ve downloaded them, or even taking people to see a movie in the theater after watching a cam download!

      • TheSpatulaOfLove says:

        @jonworld:

        That’s where you’re wrong. The artist makes around 1% of CD sales, if they got a good deal. The RIAA represents the middleman with an obsolete business model.

        I like your thinking though, that the real contributors to our society make a fraction of what the puppets, minstrels and other magazine fodder makes – unfortunately, that’s another discussion.

  2. agnamus says:

    Yay, justice only cost her several years of her life and tens of thousands of dollars for legal defense. USA! USA! USA!

    • Coder4Life says:

      @agnamus: She’s now officialy bankrupt and probably will be leaving the keys at the door of her house and moving into an apt…

      No wonder people are broke these days b/ of idiots like the RIAA that have nothing better to do but ruin people’s lives…

      • JohnDeere says:

        @Coder4Life: riaa the real cause of the housing problem.

      • ionerox says:

        @agnamus: If I recall local news reports correctly, her lawyer took the case pro bono and somehow the RIAA legal fees and court fees were not going to be part of the verdict.

        Cripes, the woman is a single mom who only makes 36k a year and has 2 kids. They’d be garnishing her paychecks for the rest of her life.

  3. erratapage says:

    I’m a happy camper after hearing this!

  4. philipbarrett says:

    Precedent – what a beautiful legal concept! Time for new tactics RIAA.

    • chrisjames says:

      @philipbarrett: Declaring it a mistrial throws out all precedent, right? They did nix the precedent of suing for damages without proof. Yay.

      They can still try it the second time, but I’m guessing “manifest error of the law” is like an auto-appeal.

    • billy says:

      @philipbarrett: The precedent is that the judge made a new declaration of what the plaintiff (the RIAA) must prove to win its case. It used to be that they only need to show that the files were available for others to download. Now, the judge is interpreting the rule a bit differently and saying that the alleged infringer must take a more active role in distribution. …thus, precedent.

      • philipbarrett says:

        @rubinow:
        Thank you, that is actually what I was referring to, the fact that the accused is offering files for download does not constitute actual infringement. By my understanding the RIAA will now have to provide evidence of actual files being downloaded from the plaintiff’s computer. A very hard burden to meet.

  5. amejr999 says:

    Wait, the judge declared a mistrial on his own trial? Huh?

    • The Porkchop Express says:

      @amejr999: yes indeed. at least that’s what it looks like. He may have realized that he told the Jury to ignore the lack of evidence that she downloaded the songs.

      Sounds like he may have felt honest that day or something.

      • SabreDC says:

        @Lo-Pan: Makes you wonder how many times this judge may have sent someone to prison and *didn’t* feel honest on that particular day.

      • mythago says:

        @Lo-Pan: Or something, yes. More like the defense filed a motion explaining why the judge screwed up, he read it, and said “You know what, you’re right.”

    • Pious_Augustus says:

      @amejr999:

      This does not mean its over, she can be retried the Judge made an error saying there should be no proof to prove she is a file sharer

      They will be back and most likely with another old judge who knows nothing about file sharing

  6. DashTheHand says:

    One setback won’t stop the RIAA from its legally criminal ways of destroying peoples lives over circumstantial evidence. Maybe if their lawyers start getting disbarred like the insane Jack Thompson, they’ll start thinking twice about suing everyone and everything in sight.

    • @DashTheHand: Actually this sets a precedent. Informed lawyers will go to court, and ask that the RIAA prove the files were downloaded by another party from their client’s computer. When the RIAA says “we don’t have to prove that” the lawyer will then cite this case, and increase the chances of a verdict in his favor one hundred fold. It might not stop the RIAA from trying, but it is a big step in the right direction.

      • ClickClickThud says:

        @What The Geek: Only for values of “hundred-fold” that are less than two. This district court precedent binds no other court until and unless it is upheld by the appellate courts. The same issue has been decided both ways by a number of different district courts, but no appellate court has ruled directly on the question.

  7. akacrash says:

    Victory! (or at least stop-loss?)

  8. akacrash says:

    ???????

  9. it’s a big day for electronic entertainment legislation! first this step in the right direction when it comes to RIAA lawsuits, and also Jack Thompson finally got what’s coming to him [checkyourhud.com]

    Today could only get better if it started raining candy!!

  10. eirrom says:

    The judge declares a mistrial and now the whole thing start over. WOW! What a great win for the woman. She can now pay attorney fees for the 2nd trial. She must be so excited!

  11. BoomerFive says:

    About time a judge showed some common sense.

  12. azntg says:

    It must really be nerve wracking for Mrs. Thomas, as a prolonged legal battle is horrible. The only consolation is that she has a slightly better chance of not getting summarily hit with what I like to call “default judgment with presence” – getting hit with a ‘default judgment’ even those the defendant is there to contest the outrageous charges made; just short of a total dog-and-pony show.

    The RIAA really has to die. Hopefully, a LONG and PAINFUL death as its “legal” (but unethical) method of extortion gets snubbed.

    Please get this one right, Judge Davis. The future of this country depends on you.

    • Dyscord says:

      @azntg: I thought that her lawyer took this case pro bono. Though it’s been a while and I don’t remember the details.

      Though if I were Mrs. Thomas, I’d find a way to countersue. Or at least get them to pay the legal fees.

  13. BrianDaBrain says:

    Well, now, this kind of decision is long overdue. In this country, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. It’s funny how the RIAA uses the argument that they shouldn’t have to prove that people actually shared the music, just that the music had the potential to be shared. Um, what? Since when is suspicion of a crime enough to be convicted of a crime?

    Hell, by RIAA logic, they should be able to sue the stores that sell their CDs, because those CDs are just stiing out, sometimes with no security at all, and somebody might come by and take one without paying for it. Does that mean the store should be sued? No.

    Next thing you know, RIAA will be suing people for playing the music that you bought legally. “You may only play this song 5 times under the new RIAA EULA. Any plays beyond this is considered stealing and is punishable with…”

    I hope the greedy asshats in the RIAA and in the record industry in general rot in hell. They’re greedy, disgusting people who deserve to watch as the money slips through their grubby little fingers.

    • rugman11 says:

      @BrianDaBrain: To be fair, Copyright Infringement is not a crime, it’s a civil matter. That’s why the RIAA doesn’t have to prove actual damages (that is, they don’t have to prove that your uploading something caused someone else to not purchase that song or CD legally). They were just extending that argument to say they didn’t need to prove that downloading actually happened. Their argument (complete BS) is that the mere act of providing a song for potential download is infringement of they copyright.

  14. Angryrider says:

    Maybe that $700 billion could be used to shut the RIAA’s traps about “file-sharing.”

  15. BigBoat says:

    Incidentally, this shows the incredible, and often unreported, power of jury instructions. Having an attorney proficient with jury instruction writing/challenges at trial is a huge bonus, and vice versa.

  16. henrygates says:

    This might look good on the surface, but the judge ordered a retrial. This woman will be dragged back into court, face thousands more in legal fees, and might be right back where she started – worse if the RIAA try to roll in their new legal fees on top of it.

  17. OMG! Ponies! says:

    Being a federal judge means never having to say you’re sorry. Not even to the RIAA.

    There’s a reason that Article III Judges have lifetime appointments. So that they can have judicial freedom.

  18. Meathamper says:

    I hope the EFF will suply a whole team of lawyers for free.

  19. mugsywwiii says:

    I’m laughing at how many people don’t understand legal precedent and act as if they do, even after someone explained it quite well.

  20. DePaulBlueDemon says:

    Bravo, judge, bravo!

  21. easy2panic says:

    He has hands, arrest him! We can’t prove that he strangled someone, but since he has the means to do it, we must imply that he did!

    Kind of a lame comparison, but just as equal.

  22. Zatnikitelman says:

    Finally, maybe this will show the “retarded idiots around america” that they damn well better follow legal procedure and “innocent until proven guilty or else they’ll get their legal papers and asses handed to them.

  23. este says:

    “Requiring proof of actual transfers would cripple efforts to enforce copyright owners’ rights online – and would solely benefit those who seek to freeload off plaintiff’s investment,” RIAA attorney Timothy Reynolds said in a court filing.

    OMGF THAT WAS THERE TACTIC!?

    Fuck RIAA and Fuck Biden for supporting them.