Source AP ©

US court to try first case of copyright claims over music downloads on file-sharing networks

The largest U.S. record companies will bring a suit against illegal downloads to court for the first time Tuesday.

Jennifer Pariser, head of litigation and antipiracy at Sony BMG, portrayed the federal copyright trial as a fight for survival.

"It is imperative for Sony BMG to combat this problem," Pariser, lead attorney for a coalition of music companies, said in her opening statement in the civil trial. "If we don't, we have no business anymore."

Jammie Thomas, a 30-year-old mother of two from Brainerd, Minnesota, told reporters outside the courtroom that she did nothing wrong. "I do know that I didn't do this, and the jury will hear that I did not do this," she said.

Thomas said that instead of paying a settlement to the six record companies that sued her she chose to spend the same amount on her attorney's retainer.

"I refuse to be bullied," she said.

Her attorney, Brian Toder, said Thomas was "in the position of trying to prove some alternative theory when she doesn't know what happened out there."

"We're in the position of trying to prove a negative, and we can't do it," he told the jury. Later, he said: "You're not going to see evidence that she distributed anything."

The trial was expected to last just a few days.

The record companies accuse Thomas of making 1,702 songs available on her Kazaa file-sharing account in 2005 without permission. In court, they will try to prove Thomas shared 25 specific songs in violation of copyrights the companies hold.

Thomas's computer hard drive will be a key to the case. She says she replaced it after she had some computer problems in 2005. The record companies say she was trying to cover her tracks after they sent her messages saying she was illegally distributing their files.

Thomas, who works for the Department of Natural Resources of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, is at risk for a judgment of more than $1.2 million (850,000 EUR). The recording association is seeking damages set under federal law, of $750 (529 EUR) to $30,000 (21,179 EUR) for each copyright violation.

As well as Sony BMG, the companies that sued Thomas are Arista Records LLC, Interscope Records, UMG Recordings Inc., Capitol Records Inc. and Warner Bros. Records Inc.

The Recording Industry Association of America, which is not a party to the lawsuit, says record companies have brought more than 26,000 actions against people for downloads that violated copyrights, with most of the defendants settling by paying a few thousand dollars.

The record companies claim that on Feb. 21, 2005, online investigators at SafeNet Inc., found 1,702 files shared under what they said was a Kazaa account being used by Thomas. The songs included Swedish death metal band Opeth, German industrial group VNV Nation and American rock band Chevelle.

"This individual was distributing these audio files for free over the Internet under the username 'tereastarrKaZaA' to potentially millions of other KaZaA users," according to court papers.

Music downloads, both legal and illegal, have dampened sales of recorded music in recent years. In 2001, the industry persuaded a federal judge to shut down Napster, which made copyrighted music available on its own computers. Since Napster reopened, it has charged users for music.

The file-sharing programs that emerged to take Napster's place point users to files available on a variety of computers and servers, instead of leading to files in a single location.

But the sharing programs' impact has been the same: Millions of songs are being downloaded for free instead of purchased legally.

The recording industry began naming individual file-sharing users in September 2003. The industry group says the lawsuits have mitigated illegal sharing, even though music file-sharing is rising. The group says the number of households that use file-sharing programs to download music has risen from 6.9 million per month in April 2003 (before the lawsuits) to 7.8 million in March 2007.

Thomas's 12-member jury includes an amateur musician and several people who have paid to download music from legally sanctioned sites.

One prospective juror who acknowledged using a file-sharing program to download music a few years ago was dismissed from the jury pool.

There have been no claims that Thomas's two children, ages 11 and 13, were involved in sharing music.

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