Friday, January 02, 2009

The RIAA and the Eyes of the World

The complete transcript for Capitol Records vs. Jammie Thomas is now available online. Why is this important, and why should you care? Several reasons:

  1. If you're an average citizen who's curious but undecided about the RIAA litigations, you can go straight to the source and see how this landmark trial was conducted. Then judge for yourself if the defendant was given a fair trial and that the jury arrived at the proper conclusion.
  2. If you're someone who's received a letter from the RIAA threatening prosecution, then you might want to make sure you study this, and that your lawyer takes a good look at it, too.
  3. If you're a lawyer interested in copyright law or have been asked to represent someone threatened by the RIAA, then you should decidedly read this transcript to better understand how to prepare such a case.
The main thing I got out of reading the transcript was just how dangerous it is to be hauled before a court for a high-tech crime where neither the judge nor jury nor even your own lawyer fully understands any of the core concepts about the situation.

The RIAA's case rested on an account name with Kazaa that matched Ms. Thomas' other account names for e-mail, etc. They claimed that that account name had offered 1,700 different song files through Kazaa. Strangely, though, they only chose to prosecute for 24 specific song files.

Here's what I found most fascinating, though. The RIAA could not conclusively prove that the account belonged to the defendant. They could not prove that anyone had actually downloaded the songs from the account. The hard drive of Thomas' computer had been replaced, destroying any forensic evidence. The timeline suggested that she had sent the computer to Best Buy before notification had arrived and evidence shows that Best Buy had recommended replacing the drive.

Nevertheless, the RIAA maintained that they had the right person, that the drive had been replaced for criminal reasons by the defendant, and without evidence of actual file sharing, or confirmed identity, or even possession of the song files themselves, managed to push through a conviction and a $220,000 fine. Innocent until proven guilty? Had the jury been made up of people familiar with the workings of the Internet, there would have been more than enough reasonable doubt -- but that wasn't the case.

Later, the judge declared a mistrial, after re-thinking some of the instructions he gave the jury (based on information he received from the RIAA). But if you think this is a dead issue and therefore irrelevant, know this: the RIAA just recently got turned down on their appeal, and they're not done yet.

My New Year's resolution? Become an even more informed citizen. And the posting of this trial transcript is an excellent opportunity for self-education.

- Ralph

Day 191 of the WJMA Web Watch. (I hope WJMA's resolution is to relaunch their website soon.)

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