September 23, 2018

RIAA/Student Suits Back in the News

Jesse Jordan, one of the students sued by the RIAA, is back in the news. It’s not that anything new has happened; it’s just that Jordan and his father are complaining about the unfairness of the suit and of the $12,000 settlement.

It’s true, as Seth Finkelstein observes, that continuing to fight the suit was a lose-lose proposition for Jordan. Even if he won, his legal bills would have far exceeded the $12,000 for which he settled (and the odds are poor that the court would order the plaintiffs to cover his legal bills).

The plaintiffs’ contributory infringement claim against Jordan, based on the assertion that he ran a “Napster-like network” (which was really just an ordinary search engine) was indeed questionable. If that were the only claim against him, then I would agree that the suit looked a bit like a shakedown.

But let’s not forget the plaintiffs’ other claim, that Jordan was a direct infringer, based on his alleged redistribution of hundreds of copyrighted works from his own computer. If proven, this claim would have cost Jordan much more than $12,000 in damages. And it seems reasonable to assume that the direct infringement claim was not baseless, especially given that Jordan has not denied it.

If so, then the only unfair aspect of Jordan’s story is that he was singled out, from among all of the direct infringers out there, as the target of a lawsuit. In other words, the problem is that a great many direct infringers are out there, any of whom could be sued at the industry’s whim.

A huge gulf has developed, between the ubiquity of casual file sharing and the law’s treatment of it as a Very Serious Offense; and this cannot go on forever. Something has to give. Either the law will change, or the industry will sue file sharers into submission, or both. So far we have an uneasy truce that nobody likes.

UPDATE (3:50 PM): I originally wrote that Jordan would have had to pay the plaintiffs’ legal bills if he lost, but they wouldn’t have to pay his if he won. Louis Trager pointed out that that was incorrect, so I have corrected the text. The Copyright Act allows a court to order the losing party to pay the winning party’s legal costs, regardless of which party wins. In other words, Jordan might have had his legal bills covered, if he won his case. But of course that would be unlikely absent a total victory; and total victory would have been a long shot given the direct infringement claim.