Know Your Rights is Engadget's new technology law series, written by our own totally punk copyright attorney Nilay Patel. In it we'll try to answer some fundamental tech-law questions to help you stay out of trouble in this brave new world. Disclaimer: Although this post was written by an attorney, it is not meant as legal advice or analysis and should not be taken as such.
What on earth is going on with that $222,000 RIAA judgment against that poor woman in Minnesota? Is the system really that broken?
Why do you always ask questions that you know will have answers that you don't like?
Come on -- almost a quarter-million dollars for sharing 24 songs on Kazaa? No one even uses that anymore.
Well, the truth is that the system isn't broken at all, really -- it's working exactly as it was designed. Under the rules in place now, anyone who willfully infringes a copyright is on the hook for at least $750 and a max of $150,000 per infringement. Since each song you share is a unique copyrighted work, that means you get hit with that penalty for every track in your shared folder. This obviously lead to some strange hypothetical results -- sharing that copy of "Wave of Mutilation" triggers the exact same legal mechanisms as sharing all of, say, OS X or Vista, since those are considered single copyrighted works, but that's how we determine damages in our system.
Well, so why were the damages so ridiculous in this case?
A range from $750 to $150,000 is pretty huge, and we may never know exactly why the jury in the Jammie Thomas case settled on $9,250 per infringement as their number -- and most observers seem to agree that it's a figure that is out of proportion with whatever harm she may have caused the labels. There is also no conclusive evidence that damages of this size have done anything to halt the growth of P2P file-sharing.
The real problem that's being brought to light is that our system doesn't always keep pace with the rapid changes in technology. Every system has flaws, and it's incredibly unlikely that lawmakers, of all people, will be able to draft legislation forward-looking enough to avoid similar breakdowns in the future.
So why even bother? If we can't get it right, why even try to impose all these limitations? It just seems to lead to things like DRM.