The Jammie Thomas Case: RIAA Strikes Hard at Kazaa Users

Intellectual property rights are oftentimes thorny issues in the legal community. Enforcing intellectual property laws are challenging, especially in the digital age, which is marked by instantaneous and wide-scale access to materials deemed owned by certain organizations or companies, with only a few clicks of the mouse. Even with the rapid pace of technological change, it appears that much still needs to be done to make clear the parameters on the use and distribution of valuable commercial information or property.

It will be noted that since the dawn of the information age, music piracy has been a widespread practice not just in the United States but across the world. Kept at bay by the expensive prices of original CDs or DVDs of an album or movie, consumers are often left feeling that they're in a no-win situation – they would like to purchase an original copy but at the same time there may not be much of a difference in quality when getting a replicated or “fake” copy of the real creative work, especially if it will entail huge cost savings.

Jammie Thomas, who hails from Minnesota, is one of the 26,000 people sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and whom a federal judge in Minnesota adjudged liable of copyright infringement after she used file-sharing software on copyrighted music. A single mother to two kids, Thomas became the object of public scrutiny when she was ordered to pay six record companies their due compensation for her act. Yet Ms. Thomas stood firm on her refusal to pay an out-of-court settlement when the record companies, from whom she obtained several songs, fought it out in the name of propping up the music industry and protecting copyright.  It proved very financially draining, though, when Thomas was ordered by the courts to pay $222,000 in damages.

Thomas' identity emerged when RIAA logged on to Kazaa, whose peer-to-peer technology, in essence, connotes the connection of individual users sans a central management point. Mere installation of Kazaa connects the main user to other users.  Of special note is that Kazaa's end user license agreement site does issue fair warning to users, noting some of the actions which are not allowed, like transmitting, accessing or communicating any data that users do not have a right to transmit under any law or under contractual or fiduciary relationships; and  transmitting, accessing or communicating any data that infringes any patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright or other proprietary rights of any party. For more information on the role that Kazaa plays in copyright law, take a look at our article RIAA Settles Kazaa Copyright Battle with Bronx Woman.

The Jammie Thomas case shows that state and common law rights may actually be inadequate in giving  original expressive works a protective shield against unrestricted copying. In the cyber-era, there appears to be a greater legal uncertainty on what constitutes an infringement or not. In the case of Thomas, the songs being shared on her Kazaa file-sharing account online included popular tracks by the Swedish “death metal” band Opeth, Janet Jackson, Guns ‘N' Roses, Journey, Destiny's Child and several others.

Jammie Thomas has found sympathizers in the form of university professors (upon retrospection, it will be remembered that the “No Electronic Theft Act” of 1997 also had the academic community opposing it) not to mention the case judge who had mulled over the declaration of a mistrial. Fueling the judge's doubts and misgivings is an assessment on whether the act of putting a file for distribution by way of placing it in a shared folder, without evidence of being downloaded, actually constitutes copyright infringement.

The Jammie Thomas case truly perplexes ordinary folks on the internet, who at certain points in their lives discover the “joys” of obtaining music files or even movie video segments online, and enjoy it strictly for personal use.  It seems a hefty price to pay for music that one simply wanted to share with peers. Then again, the huge investments that companies make in creative works of art cannot be overlooked, which in some way does make the ruling on Jammie's liability a reasonable one.

Just as the arguments on the Jammie Thomas case have been heating up, people may well recall and refer to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, which was signed into law by President Clinton in October 1998, stipulating, among others, that it is a crime to circumvent anti-piracy measures built into most commercial software. This makes us think that if something is truly prohibited, modern technology has devised ways and means to continually remind digital users on what is or is not unlawful.  Moreover, are not service providers expected to limit access or remove material from users' web sites if these constitute copyright infringement?  The impact of digital technology on the free-flowing exchange or sharing of ideas has been so all-encompassing that individuals may get lost in animation as they keep on discovering and letting others know what they were able to obtain online.  In effect, should not the guardians of the companies with websites be issuing fair warnings protecting not just themselves but those who visit their sites?

The digital age has truly changed many things, and thus also requires a reexamination of intellectual property rules.  While I agree that original creative works or innovations do deserve to be protected from unwarranted copying/replication, distribution to the public through sale, lease or lending, or rental, particularly on a public scale, it is likewise the responsibility of record or movie companies and other intellectual property rights holder to issue fair warnings to consumers on their restrictions.

Sound reasoning  dictates that copyright owners resort to or use technological self-help measures to protect their property. Copyright infringement may actually be stopped on peer-to-peer networks and unauthorized access may be indicated by using file scanning software on file-sharing networks. The instant availability or public access of copyrighted works may be blocked, diverted, or impaired.

As for copyright legislation, it must be noted that its impact on stifling rather than giving ifree rein to creativity on the part of  users for which an innovation  is created, may be worth considering.  Many organizations that strive to stay within the fair use guidelines set by copyright laws are worth emulating. Finally, there are alliances, associations and coalitions today  that aim to promote the rights of  individuals in the copyright law.   The bottomline is that while due diligence in respecting intellectual property is important, creativity and freedom of expression need not be restrained by intellectual property laws and their enforcement.

Do you feel RIAA is in the right by suing ordinary citizens or are they abusing their power?

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