File-sharing case gets second spin

Error in jury instructions leads to new trial

MINNEAPOLIS -- A federal judge granted a new trial to a Minnesota woman convicted last year of pirating music files in the nation's first file-sharing trial, ruling that he made an error in the jury instructions that "substantially prejudiced" her rights.

Jammie Thomas was convicted in October, and a jury in Duluth found her guilty of copyright infringement for offering to share 24 songs on the Kazaa file sharing network. She was ordered to pay $222,000 to six record companies.

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis now has granted her motion for a new trial, while also imploring Congress to change copyright laws to prevent excessive awards in similar cases.

At issue was whether the record companies had to prove anyone else actually downloaded their copyrighted songs, as Thomas' lawyer argued, or whether it was enough to argue, as the industry did, that a defendant simply made copyrighted music available for copying.

Relying on a 1993 appeals court decision, Davis concluded in his 44-page ruling Wednesday that the law requires that actual distribution be shown. In his jury instructions, he had said it didn't.

Because he ordered a new trial, he didn't directly rule on Thomas' request that he void the $222,000 damage award as excessive. But he called on Congress to change the federal Copyright Act to address liability and damages in similar peer-to-peer file-sharing network cases.

Davis wrote that he didn't discount the industry's claim that illegal downloading has hurt the recording business, but called the award "wholly disproportionate" to the plaintiff's damages.

Thomas and her attorney, Brian Toder, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. A spokesman for the RIAA, Jonathan Lamy, said the group was reviewing Davis' order and was preparing a statement.