The RIAA has successfully sued a woman in Minnesota for downloading and sharing music. Following the first actual jury trial in the RIAA’s anti-piracy legal campaign, one Jammie Thomas of Brainerd, Minn. has been ordered to pay $220,000 for 24 songs she downloaded and shared using Kazaa — that’s $9,250 per song.
I don’t know anything about the legal aspects of the case (though I would guess — indeed hope — that this is largely a media victory for the RIAA, and that Thomas, who doesn’t appear to be massively wealthy, won’t ultimately be liable for the full amount — maybe she can declare bankruptcy?) But whether or not the letter of the law has been scrupulously observed, in the verdict and in the amount of damage awarded, I feel a lot of sympathy for Thomas, who got randomly singled out and made an example of by the RIAA. I’m not one of those people who’s been radicalized on the subject of copyright, but the technology for moving media around has progressed to the point where it really is kinda confusing — downloading a song is so easy and so common that it just doesn’t feel illegal. There’s no resistance there — the act itself is just not framed that way. The context and the mechanism have been stripped of any cues that would ordinarily twig you that you’re doing something wrong.
And the way the music industry is structured doesn’t help: you’ve got relatively unwealthy people consuming IP created by an overclass of sultanically rich celebrities. How are you supposed to work up a decent head of shame over swiping a copy of a song from a multi-millionaire? Especially when you’re already sitting on a big pile of legally purchased, quite expensive music, which I understand Ms. Thomas was.
And yeah, I get it. We’re not children. We’re responsible for our actions. I produce IP for a living, and my salary depends in some small part on an economy where it’s still possible to charge for said IP. But the damage award was just grotesque in this case. And it’s not just consumers who get caught in the ethical grey zone of the information economy. Take a look at this excellent NY Times story, about an ad campaign that Virgin Mobile Australia ran. The campaign is based on an image that some guy posted on Flickr, under the Creative Commons license. Virgin Mobile just swiped it, photoshopped out a bystander, and stuck it on a billboard. The family of the girl in the image is suing. You almost want to say, “look, everything is really complicated and weird right now. Let’s all just take 5 years and sort this stuff out without impoverishing consumers and making a bunch of lawyers really rich.”