Ms Thomas, a single mother of two, is was the first person successfully prosecuted to a substantive trial by the RIAA in the USA for copyright infringement by P2P file “sharing” – using KaZaa, she downloaded and “shared” 24 copies of protected sound recordings.
The jury awarded RIAA statutory damages of US$220,000 by the jury (or $9,250 per song file downloaded).
Well, (pending the appeal), it’s all coming unstuck – a bit. The trial judge, of his own motion (they do things differently over there?), recalled the matter, heard further argument and has granted a retrial on the basis that his instruction to the jury was erroneous.
Jury Instruction No. 15 was as follows:
“The act of making copyrighted sound recordings available for electronic distribution on a peer?to?peer network, without license from the copyright owners, violates the copyright owners’ exclusive right of distribution, regardless of whether actual distribution has been shown.”
The error appears to be in those words “regardless of whether actual distribution has been shown”.
US copyright law, like much in the US I guess, is rather different. The US Copyright Act does not include a “making available” right (see art. 8 WCT and arts 10 and 14 WPPT). In the funny way they do things there, copyright owners do not get an exclusive right to communicate a work electronically; rather they get – in addition to publication and reproduction rights – (1) a right to publicly perform it and (2) to distribute copies: see 17 USC §106, in particular (3):
(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”
The “public performance” right is how they provide control over broadcasting. It turns out, however, that distributing copies requires that there be an actual distribution, not just a making available for distribution.
First, the trial judge has granted a new trial.
Even on the narrow approach taken by the trial judge (putting to one side the potential for an appeal), Ms Thomas seems to be extremely exposed. For example, the RIAA argued that the error didn’t matter because Ms Thomas infringed the copyright by downloading the recordings: an exercise of the reproduction right. The trial judge noted that may well be right, but it was impossible to tell whether the jury awarded the US$220,000 damages on the basis of infringing the reproduction right or the erroneous instruction no. 15, or some combination of factors.
Similarly, the only proof of “distribution” was the copy downloaded by the RIAA’s private investigator. Ms Thomas argued that this could never be a distribution because the copyright owner (and its authorised agents) can’t infringe its own copyright. The trial judge rejected this:
The Court holds that distribution to MediaSentry can form the basis of an infringement claim. Eighth Circuit precedent clearly approves of the use of investigators by copyright owners. While Thomas did not assist in the copying in the same manner as the retail defendant in Olan Mills – by actually completing the copying for the investigator – or as the retail defendants in RCA/Ariola – by assisting in selecting the correct tape on which to record and helping customers copy – she allegedly did assist in a different, but substantial manner. Plaintiffs presented evidence that Thomas, herself, provided the copyrighted works for copying and placed them on a network specifically designed for easy, unauthorized copying. These actions would constitute more substantial participation in the infringement than the actions of the defendants in the Eighth Circuit cases who merely assisted in copying works provided by the investigators.
That is, by using KaZaa, Ms Thomas placed (whether knowingly or not) unauthorised copies of the recordings in her “shared” file so that other KaZaa users could access it and copy it. That would be sufficient for liability for distribution if a copy were shown actually to be distributed. A retrial was necessary, however, because it wasn’t possible to tell how much that infringing act contributed to the damages award and how much as a result of the erroneous Jury Instruction No. 15.
Secondly, the trial judge’s interpretation of the distribution right seems somewhat narrower than what some people had been arguing: that distribution required distribution of physical copies, not transmission of electrons.
Thirdly, Ms Thomas’ imaginary Australian cousin, would not have much hope: see e.g. ss 31(1)(a)(iv) and 85(1)(c) of the Copyright Act 1968, bearing in mind the “communicate” is defined in s 10910 to mean
make available online or electronically transmit (whether over a path, or a combination of paths, provided by a material substance or otherwise) a work or other subject-matter, including a performance or live performance within the meaning of this Act.
and there would also be the small matter of the reproduction of the infringing copy on her computer.
She would not of course be exposed to statutory damages. As Howard Knopf, over at Excess Copyright notes, the trial judge is extremely upset about the imposition of statutory damages in this context.
Although if the imaginary Australian cousin continued after receipt of a letter of demand “additional damages” might loom large: see Review v Innovative Lifestyle at  –  (a registered designs case).
Finally, trade war? Well, not yet. Who knows whether there will be an appeal and how long it will take. In any event, the making available right is in the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performers and Phongrams Treaty. These are not obligations that are required to be implemented by TRIPS and so are not subject to the WTO dispute resolution procedures.
But hey, may be Australian copyright owners could lobby the Australian government and get it to take matters up under the Free Trade Agreement procedures. One can imagine (well fantasise is perhaps more accurate) that the US administration and Congress would be terrified at the offence to their treaty partner’s rights amidst all that Wall Street “flu”. At least, it might be something to poke them back in the eye with (in due course and providing they are not wearing lipstick).
Case is Capitol Records Inc v Jammie Thomas here.
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