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Yesterday, in a closely-watched case, U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis made an extraordinary ruling, determining that he had given a jury the wrong instructions before they deliberated by telling them that the plaintiffs need not prove actual distribution of copyrighted materials, only that the defendant “made available” copyrighted music.
The 44-page ruling set aside a guilty verdict and a $220,000 penalty against a Minnesota woman who was convicted of pirating music. The woman, Jammie Thomas, will now get a new trial.
Pouring salt on the music industry’s wound, Judge Davis said he wouldn’t rule whether the $222,000 damage award was constitutionally excessive, but instead urged Congress to change the federal Copyright Act to address liability and damages in similar peer-to-peer file-sharing network cases.
Ironically, the ruling comes just as the entertainment industry’s biggest legislative achievement this year is falling apart.
Two weeks ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a new bill that if passed by the full Congress and signed into law, would give the Justice Department the power to sue copyright pirates. Advocates of the bill hoped that a lower evidence threshold and more resources would prompt the Justice Department to take up the RIAA’s cause — so far, it has sued some 30,000 file-sharers — and scare the hell out of pirates.
One problem: Apparently, the Justice Department doesn’t want to be the outsourced legal service provider for the entertainment industry. Late Tuesday, it sent a letter to the chairs of the Judiciary Committee torpedoing the idea. “In an era of fiscal responsibility, the resources of the Department of Justice should be used for the public benefit, not on behalf of particular industries that can avail themselves of the existing civil enforcement provisions,” says the letter.
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