Ruling reinforces principles in RIAA piracy suits

A federal judge wagged a finger at record labels, ordering them to pay attorney costs for a woman they unsuccessfully sued for illegal music downloads.

Attorneys opposed to the thousands of such suits that the Recording Industry Assn. of America has launched in recent years said the decision establishes dramatic precedent; the RIAA downplayed the importance of the ruling.

In the case of Capitol v. Foster, the labels identified a screen name belonging to homemaker and mother Deborah Foster as one that illegally downloaded or shared copyrighted songs. Foster’s daughter, Amanda, was the downloader, but Capitol argued that Foster should be held accountable, too, for activity under her screen name.

The labels won a default judgment against Amanda Foster and later dropped its suit against Deborah, who petitioned the court for attorney fees.

On Tuesday, Judge Lee R. West ruled that Foster “is entitled to reasonable attorney fees,” likely to be around $50,000.

“The decision is of great significance” because “it reinforces a number of important principles,” said Ray Beckerman, an attorney who has represented other defendants against RIAA downloading lawsuits. Mainly, the ruling limits the definition of copyright infringement. “It reinforces the holding of MGM v. Grokster on secondary liability, establishing that the lack of affirmative encouragement or inducement is a complete and total defense,” Beckerman said.

It also “makes clear that the RIAA’s driftnet strategy, of targeting innocent people in order to conduct an investigation or in order to extract a settlement, is going to have very expensive consequences for the RIAA,” Beckerman added.

The RIAA responded: “We respectfully believe that the court got it wrong. We are studying the opinion and will make a determination as to how best to proceed after we have completed our review and analysis.”

An RIAA source also noted that in five other cases in five other courts, judges denied identical petitions for reimbursement of attorney fees.

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