June 18, 2009

Forget that McDonald's Coffee Lawsuit: the RIAA Rapes Justice.

For years, people have used the case of Liebeck vs. McDonald's Restaurants as an example of litigation run amok.  But Stella can rest easy, there's a new litigious bully in town.

For those who don't know, Stella Liebeck is the 79 year old woman who suffered third degree burns after spilling a cup of McDonald's coffee on her lap.  This resulted in an eight day hospital stay, skin grafts, followed by two years of painful surgery to repair burns to her inner thighs, genitals, buttocks, and the entire groin area.

Ms. Liebeck sought a settlement of $20,000 from McDonalds, to help defray the medical costs from the mishap.  They refused, and she sued for damages.   Eventually, a jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages, and $2.7 million in punitive damages because McDonalds own testimony showed that they should have known better than to serve coffee at a temperature significantly higher than the industry standard at the time.  The court reduced the punitive damages to $480,000 dollars, and McDonald's finally did settle with Liebeck for an undisclosed amount, presumably less than 2.7 million, but we'll never know.

But forget Stella: her lawsuit was chump change compared to the RIAA's latest abuse of our legal system.  The RIAA successfully sued a woman who stole $23.76 and somehow duped a jury into awarding them $1.9 million  in damage.  Jammie Thomas-Rasset downloaded 24 songs using Kazaa.  She could have downloaded these same songs through iTunes for 99 cents a piece.  The jury's verdict gifts the RIAA $80,000 for each 99 cent song she illegally downloaded.

Thomas-Rasset, plans to appeal. This was actually the second trial for Thomas-Rasset: the judge ordered a retrial in the 2007 hearing because he found an error in the jury's instructions.  I suspect there might have been an error this time, too: someone forgot to tell the jury that the punishment should fit the crime, and not the demands of corporate excess.

I'm all for paying for music. I'm all for reasonable copyright protection.  I'm all for criminals being held accountabel for their crimes, and for victims of theft to be reimbursed for their loss.

Hell, I've had three cars stolen, and my apartment cleaned out.  I absolutely should be reimbursed for my losses, and the thief should be punished. I think most people would agree that $10 for every buck stolen would be fair.  A hundred bucks on the dollar is stiff, but not unreasonable.  I will even say $1000 on the dollar might not be outrageous.  But $8,000 on the penny?  Sorry, no. That ain't reasonable.  Not for a penny-ante crime like this one.

It's time that the Department of Justice combed through the RIAA's books.  Anyone who thinks $80,000 is a reasonable punishment for a 99 cent crime is bound to have other interesting philosophies in bookkeeping.


  1. Ah. But there's a reason for the $80,000 per offense. Yes, she downloaded 24 songs off Kazaa, but Kazaa is a file SHARING service. How many people downloaded HER copy? On services like Kazaa and Limewire, not only are you receiving stolen property, but you are also distributing it. How many people downloaded her copy?

    If I were in the record industry, I would do everything I could to publicize this victory and make the next person think twice about stealing, and yes, it is stealing, music that they have sunk millions into producing and promoting.

  2. OK, so tell me: how many people DID download HER copy? Give me a breakdown of what she's paying for by download.

    From my perspective, the RIAA needs to prove that in fact the song was downloaded at all. I want to see proof of 1.9 million in damages, or even damages that make more sense than eight grand on the freaking penny.

    If a kid opens a gumball machine and takes a couple of pieces and other kids steal the rest, do we take his kidneys out? No, that's overkill.

    When the the courts allow ridiculous settlements, it undermines confidence in the entire system. This looks a like a death sentence for a parking ticket, to me.

    And let's be clear about something else: it's not investment that's been stolen, it's profit off one the highest profit margins in the world. It's been decades since the recording industry made any real investment into promoting its artists.

    The RIAA has damaged the music industry only slightly less than ClearChannel Communications.

  3. No. Clear Channel is far worse.

    It has NOT been decades since the record industry stopped paying millions to promote their artists, or have you not heard of that whole MTV thing? People like you and I tend not to notice how much they promote, since we are no longer their target audience and they aren't pushing bands we listen to.

    Also, the music industry spends millions on "music consultants" whose job it is to promote the labels' music to radio stations by, you guessed it, paying money to the radio station to use their service. Yep, payola is alive and well. It's not even a secret. Congress shot down a bill banning the practice a couple of years ago.

    In reading the case closer, the media is being very misleading. It's not because she downloaded the songs, it's because she made them available for sharing. If you would like to show me where the RIAA DIDN'T prove it in court, I'll follow that argument. I don't use Kazaa or anything like it anymore, but I do recall that it kept track of how many people downloaded from your computer. Proving it would be easy.

    If I were to find 20 pounds of weed and get busted because I left it on my front porch and a cop saw it, should I get less of a sentence because the cops can't prove how many other people took from it? Or do I just get busted for distributing illegal goods?

    Yes, it sucks that they chose to pick on a single mother to make there point. But you should also know that the RIAA isn't likely to see a dime of it. This was just a great opportunity for an industry that is in a major decline to show that no offense is too small.

    The real argument, however, is if the record industry had their biggest year of all time at the height of Napster, why are they caring? And they have been in decline ever since. It was stupid logic that they didn't see what a great marketing tool is was for them.

    The same logic is discovered to apply to the movie industry as a recent study showed that people who download movies illegally also go to the movies and buy DVDs MORE than the average consumer.

    Still, the woman committed civil theft. The RIAA has zero say in the amount they were awarded. Sure, they could have said, "It cost us $80,000 per song", but the jury can award them anything they'd like. Our firm was involved in a slander lawsuit in which the Plaintiff was demanded $10,000 in damages. The jury awarded him $1. If you don't like how our judicial system is working, don't let yourself or anyone you know try to weasel out of jury duty.

  4. If I were to find 20 pounds of weed and get busted because I left it on my front porch and a cop saw it, should I get less of a sentence because the cops can't prove how many other people took from it?

    Is it your contention that music is an illegal narcotic? Interesting argument.

    I think it's more akin to your neighbors taking your newspaper off the front stoop. Of course, since it's digital, it can be done while leaving you your copy.