Texas Court Tells RIAA it Can Claim Damages, But Less Than it Wants

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Say you were to step back in time, to the moment before you were aware that copying and sharing music, either through tangible media or virtual transfer, was illegal - and could be a crime prosecutable with steep fines and perhaps even a jail term (if you happened to be convicted of particularly heavy violations). Would you prefer to see damages conditioned to fit considerably less intense profile? One described as “innocent infringement,” perhaps? That’s what the defendant in Maverick v. Harper is hoping to realize.

    The case takes place in San Antonio court, and involves what originally was a 16 year old girl (now college age), who admitted to copyright infringement but has sought “‘innocent infringer’ status,” according to Ray Beckerman of the website Recording Industry vs The People.

    The RIAA, according to Beckerman, aimed for summary judgment in light of the defendant’s plea of ignorance about her transgression(s). But interestingly enough, the court has “denied the RIAA’s motion…unless (it) agrees to accept $200 per infringement.”

    That number is rather meaningful, actually. The court details its position:
    The damages provision of the Copyright Act provides that a plaintiff may elect to seek
    minimum damages of $750 per work. 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(1). However, it also provides that “where the infringer . . . was not aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted an infringement of copyright, the court in its discretion may reduce the award of statutory damages to a sum of not less than $200.” 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(2). The defendant has the burden to prove the lack of intent necessary for innocent infringement.
    The court then explained the defendants stated position on the matter:
    Defendant admitted that she owned compact discs. However, both in her affidavit and in her deposition, Defendant claimed that she believed using KaZaA and similar products to be akin to listening to radio over the internet and did not know that the Recordings were being either downloaded or distributed. She further claimed that prior to this lawsuit, she did not have any understanding of copyright infringement.
    Insofar as the defendant’s need to “prove the lack of intent necessary for innocent infringement,” the court had this to say:
    At the summary judgment stage, all factual disputes must be construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party—in this case, Defendant. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Defendant has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that her actions constituted innocent infringement. 17 U.S.C. § 502(c)(2). Plaintiffs have not introduced any evidence to contradict that Defendant did not have an understanding of the nature of file-sharing programs and copyright sophisticated enough to have reason to know that her actions infringed Plaintiffs’ copyrights. Therefore, the Court finds that a fact issue exists as to whether Defendant was an innocent infringer.
    There you have it. A lesser charge for the defendant, it seems. But I must say, even with the -$550 “voucher” put up by the court, $200 per work still puzzles me. If we’re to take $0.99 as the generally accepted price for a digital music track today, a 20,000% premium is peculiarly high for an infraction. Yes, the real damages to the RIAA could be quite high, given the amount of illegal proliferation of music on the Web. But one could perhaps just as convincingly argue the opposite. That they are not so high on an individual basis. As it goes in the peer-to-peer realm, the number of seeders, like leechers, is high. Given the fact that there is room for “doubt,” as it were, at least in a legal sense, damages could do with a major decrease. All the more so if a defendant is judged an “innocent infringer.”

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