By EMILY BANKS
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) said its year-old legal campaign against unlawful file sharing on college campuses appears to be paying off.
A combination of aggressive letter-writing to college officials and the outcome of a trial involving Jammie Thomas of Brainerd, Minn., which resulted in a fine of $220,000, may be the reasons, according to RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy.
In January, for example, officials at St. Mary’s University in Winona received letters about activity on 13 Internet accounts. The University of Minnesota and Gustavus Adolphus College have also gotten letters in recent months.
In the Thomas case, a jury ruled in October that Thomas should pay $9,250 for each of the 24 songs she copied and distributed on the Kazaa file-sharing network.
“It is more clear to people what the consequences are for illegally downloading music,” Lamy said. “I think that message came through very clear.”
The University of Minnesota, like other colleges that receive pre-litigation letters, passes them on to the students once the Internet accounts’ addresses are matched with the user.
“We identify the student and advise them that they should get appropriate legal advice,” said Steve Cawley, a university vice president in the Office of Information Technology.
For several years, the RIAA has sent copyright violation notifications to colleges, requiring the user to remove copyrighted material. Cawley said the university has received fewer of these letters.
But the RIAA is doing more than requiring people to simply remove copyrighted material. Once a student receives a pre-lawsuit letter, two options remain: settle for a reduced fee — typically $3,000 to $5,000 — or risk a lawsuit.
Letters have been sent to more than 150 colleges across the country, according to the RIAA.
More chance of getting caught
Fear of a lawsuit has been one of the top reasons people cease or reduce file sharing, according to a study by the NPD Group, a consumer and retail information company that specializes in market research.
For Gabe Erickson, a University of Minnesota junior, fear of a lawsuit was enough for him to completely stop downloading illegally. With the RIAA’s increased efforts, Erickson said it seemed more realistic he could get caught.
“The consequences far outweigh the benefits,” he said.
In Thomas’ case, she is waiting for the U.S. district judge who heard the case, Michael Davis, to decide if the $222,000 judgment was excessive.
The civil trial drew national attention because it was the first Internet piracy suit by the recording industry against a customer to go to trial.
Jurors were instructed that simply placing the songs on the Kazaa network could be considered distribution, even in the absence of proof that anyone received them.
Thomas’ attorney, Brian Toder, called the amount “astronomical” and “offensive to our constitution” in court documents, raising a constitutional challenge to the Copyright Act, which was used to determine the damages Thomas must pay.
Since then, the U.S. attorney’s office has filed a memorandum defending the constitutionality of the act.
Congress acted reasonably in creating the act’s range of damages that serve “both a compensatory and deterrent purpose,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in its 20-page memo. “Congress also took into account the need to deter the millions of users of new media from infringing copyrights in an environment where many violators believe that they will go unnoticed.”
Thomas, 30, could have settled out of court, like thousands of others, but she said in court that she wanted to defend her actions.
If Davis doesn’t rule the award excessive, Thomas said she plans to appeal.
It could take several months for the court to make a decision on the current motion, Toder said.
Emily Banks is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.