Capitol v. Thomas: Judge Orders New Trial, Implores Congress to Lower Statutory Penalties for P2P
Joining the ranks of federal district judges in Arizona and Massachusetts, District of Minnesota Chief Judge Michael Davis today concluded that simply making a music file available in a shared file does not violate copyright law, and ordered a new trial in Capitol Records v. Jammie Thomas.
The case made headlines last year as the first peer-to-peer file-sharing case to go all the way to trial. In October 2007, a jury held Thomas liable and awarded $222,000 in damages to the record companies, based in whole or in part (it wasn’t clear) on an instruction that merely making a file available violates a copyright owner’s distribution right. Earlier this year, Chief Judge Davis said he was concerned that he might have made a mistake with that instruction and asked for more briefing on whether Thomas deserved a new trial. EFF, joined by Public Knowledge, the United States Internet Industry Association, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association filed an amicus brief urging the Court to reject the RIAA’s making available theory.
One key holding:
The Court’s examination of the use of the term “distribution” in other provisions of the Copyright Act, as well as the evolution of liability for offers to sell in the analogous Patent Act, lead to the conclusion that the plain meaning of the term “distribution” does not including making available and, instead, requires actual dissemination.
. . .
If simply making a copyrighted work available to the public constituted a distribution, even if no member of the public ever accessed that work, copyright owners would be able to make an end run around the standards for assessing contributor copyright infringement.
In addition, Chief Judge Davis called on Congress to amend the Copyright Act:
The Court would be remiss if it did not take this opportunity to implore Congress to amend the Copyright Act to address liability and damages in peer-to-peer network cases such as the one currently before this Court. . . . 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 five hundred times the cost of buying 24 separate CDs and more than four thousand times the cost of three CDs. While the Copyright Act was intended to permit statutory damages that are larger than the simple cost of the infringed works in order to make infringing a far less attractive alternative than legitimately purchasing the songs, surely damages that are more than one hundred times the cost of the works would serve as a sufficient deterrent.
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Unfortunately, by using Kazaa, Thomas acted like countless other Internet users. Her alleged acts were illegal, but common. Her status as a consumer who was not seeking to harm her competitors or make a profit does not excuse her behavior. But it does make the award of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages unprecedented and oppressive.
EFF applauds Chief Judge Davis’s thorough rejection of the RIAA’s effort to rewrite copyright law and thereby avoid the trouble of actually proving any infringement has occurred. And we wholeheartedly endorse the court’s call to amend the Copyright Act’s oppressive damages provisions.