Court Victory For Music Labels Won't Save Their Industry

The music industry won the first file-sharing case to go to trial yesterday when a jury found a Minnesota woman guilty of 24 counts of copyright infringement. The $222,000 verdict comes to $9,250 for each of the 24 songs at issue. Perhaps this is how the industry hopes to keep the price of music from going down to zero.

The music industry is hoping that this out-sized verdict will make song-sharers think twice before downloading that next free tune. If anything, though, this case tells music sharers what not to do if they want to avoid getting caught—like having the same username, “tereastarr,” on the file-sharing networks as you do on your e-mail, IM, and other online accounts.

Over the past four years, the RIAA has sued 26,000 of its customers, but it won’t get the same windfall from all of those cases, since most settle for about $4,000. This was the first to go to trial. So the verdict (if it is not reduced on appeal) sets an important precedent. All the music industry needs to do now is win another 52,000 lawsuits with the same size penalty to match its revenues of $11.5 billion last year.

Someone should create some software for the RIAA that automates the serving of subpoenas, because they really have to step up their efforts if they want to save their industry. Or, the industry can spend its time and money trying to find new business models that encourage and profit from the way people actually listen to music today—on their ipods, streaming from the Web, shared among friends and peers. As music goes digital, it becomes more fungible. People are going to do with it what they want because they can. The law may be on the RIAA’s side, but the market is against it.