Jammie Thomas-Rasset, I’m convinced, will someday be hailed as a martyr of the digital revolution.
Yesterday, a federal jury ordered Thomas-Rasset — a 32-year-old mother of four — to pay $1.2 million for illegal file sharing in the first and only case waged in the courtroom over file sharing. That jury found that Thomas-Rasset was guilty of sharing 24 songs on the formerly popular file-sharing service Kazaa. Her punishment amounts to paying $80,000 per song.
I don’t know why the jury thought $80,000 was a reasonable price to pay for each track Jammie supposedly shared. It’s unnecessarily punitive and not at all in line with anything proved at trial.
Apparently, Media Sentry (a company hired by the recording industry to track down so-called illegal file sharers) downloaded samples of music files Thomas-Rasset had on her computer. That simple act was enough to prove that Thomas-Rasset was intentionally sharing files, and, as such, was illegally distributing them without a license. How many illegal copies was she responsible for? Nobody knows. But I can promise you, none of those songs was downloaded from her computer 80,000 times.
Why 80,000? Any of those songs can be purchased on iTunes for about a buck apiece. If Thomas-Rasset didn’t hand out 80,000 free copies of each song, why should she pay for 80,000 copies of each song? It’s a ludicrous result.
All that being said, this time around, the RIAA did exactly what it hasn’t in the past. This lawsuit was won for two reasons: One, because Thomas-Rasset actually decided to fight it and two, because the RIAA actually showed she distributed the music. See, the law doesn’t say it’s illegal to get a free copy of music; it says it’s illegal to copy and distribute music to others. That’s an awfully important distinction. Too often we hear about “illegal downloading.” And though the RIAA would love you to believe there is such a thing, it has never won a lawsuit upholding its stance on downloading music.
And that’s why Jammie Thomas-Rasset is the patron saint of file-sharing.
The recording industry’s dirty little secret is that over the years it has threatened or filed more than 30,000 lawsuits over alleged file sharing. Nearly all of them have been settled out of court for about $3,500 apiece. That adds up to a pretty chunk of change: $105 million. And do you know what the RIAA had to prove in order to get that money? Nothing.
The modus operendi of the recording industry (at least until last August) was to target college campuses and track down students who downloaded — not shared — music from the Internet. By strong-arming colleges, they’d get the names of students attached to particular IP addresses and threaten to sue them. Little Susie or Little Johnny would get threatening letters from the RIAA’s lawyers offering them the option to pony up $3,500 or face a lawsuit. Johnny and Susie, afraid of their parents’ rath and nervous about what such a lawsuit would do to their futures, dipped into student loans, college savings or borrowed from their parents to make the RIAA go away. In essence, they caved to bully tactics, rather than do what we’re all told to do when we’re bullied: Stand up to them.
Frankly, I know nothing about Jammie Thomas-Rasset outside of this case. She may not be a fine, upstanding person. But plenty of others targeted by the RIAA are. And the fact the Thomas-Rasset actually fought for herself in this case is admirable.
Look, we are moving entirely away from physical media as a distribution model. File sharing is basically growing pains of the industry. More than anything, file sharing has forced the industry to create new distribution models. It has taken away the “album” construct the industry has screwed music lovers with for 30 years or so and will, I believe, force musicians to release only the best art they can.
As a musician, I can say that I want absolutely nothing to do with the RIAA. While I have music available for purchase, I’m totally comfortable with people “stealing” it; I just want people to hear it. How many times did you buy an album because you liked one song, only to find out the other 11 songs on the album were terrible? You paid for all of them anyway, didn’t you? Who got ripped off on that deal.
Music should be about art — not marketing. The RIAA has gotten fat and happy on marketing garbage and passing it off as art. And we’ve been suckered into it. At least Jammie Thomas-Rasset had the guts to pay what it was worth. Unfortunately, the dunderheads on the jury disagreed. Would you pay $80,000 for your very own copy of “Don’t Stop Believing?” Jammie Thomas-Rasset is doing just that.