Judge in online music sharing case may grant new trial

  • Article by: Larry Oakes
  • Star Tribune
  • May 15, 2008 - 10:24 AM

The judge in a landmark music copyright infringement award against a Brainerd woman notified attorneys today that he's considering granting a new trial on the grounds that he improperly instructed the jury about what constitutes illegal file-sharing on the internet.

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis said in an order filed  this morning in Minneapolis that he may have made a "manifest error of law" last October when he instructed a Duluth jury that simply uploading songs to a music file-sharing network could be considered illegal distribution, even in the absence of proof that anyone received them.

In a verdict hailed by the music recording industry, the jury found Jammie Thomas, 30, willfully violated the copyrights of six recording companies and should pay them $222,000. Jurors found that Thomas, operating on her home computer under the user name "tereastarr" on the Kazaa file-sharing network, copied or distributed 24 songs, and it set damages at $9,250 for each.

Thomas'  attorney said the award was excessive and filed a motion asking Davis to reduce it. But Davis, in today's order, wrote that he'll consider granting a new trial on different grounds.

"The Court is concerned that Jury Instruction 15 may have been contrary to binding Eighth Circuit [U.S. Court of Appeals] precedent," Davis wrote. He then cited a case in which the appeals court "stated that `infringement of [the distribution right] requires an actual dissemination''' or, in other words, proof that someone received the songs.
  Davis wrote that no party to the case made him aware of that precedent. His order did not say how it was brought to his attention.

 He ordered that attorneys for Thomas and the record companies submit briefs by May 29 on whether he erred. He wrote that he'll hear oral arguments on those briefs on July 1 in U.S. District Court in Duluth.

In apparent recognition of the case's importance to the music industry and to the millions of people who download and share music, the judge also suggested that "interested parties" submit friend-of-the-court briefs by the same deadline.

 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. The Recording Industry Association of America said the verdict and its aggressive letter-writing campaign to colleges were spreading the word that people can pay a price for illegally downloading or sharing music.

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