The RIAA Ordered To Pay Defendent Foster’s Attorney’s Fees
Debbie Foster won another legal victory against the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) when a judge ordered the organization to reimburse her for “reasonable attorneys fees.” The RIAA originally sued the Oklahoma woman over copyright infringement – Capitol Record v. Debbie Foster – after someone using an IP address assigned to an Internet account in her name was discovered with a shared folder available on a file-sharing network.
This past July, the case against her was dismissed with prejudice, which, in the eyes of the judge, made her the prevailing party. During pre-trail arguments, Foster said that she owned the account, but that she was completely ignorant of the existence and use of file-sharing software. Foster did say that her adult daughter and estranged husband had access to the account, and may have been responsible for the infringement.
Instead of immediately dropping the case against Debbie Foster and suing those they believed were responsible for the alleged infringement, the plaintiffs amended the complaint to add her daughter Amanda Foster, while keeping Debbie as a codefendant. The RIAA told Debbie Foster that she was liable for any infringement regardless of whether she had shared or downloaded files herself because she was the registered owner of the account. Foster responded by filing a counterclaim for a “declaratory judgement of noninfringement.”
Over a year and a half after the lawsuit was filed, the RIAA decided to dismiss their claims against Debbie Foster with prejudice. Foster, however, refused to drop her counterclaim. In July 2006, Judge Lee R. West dismissed both the original lawsuit and the counterclaim, finding the latter to be unnecessary, ruling that Foster was the “prevailing party” under the Copyright Act, opening the door for an award of attorneys’ fees.
The RIAA’s strategy of keeping Foster as a defendant and saying that she was responsible for secondary copyright infringement totally backfired and was cited by the Judge as supporting his attorneys’ fee award. Judge Lee was unconvinced by the the RIAA’s argument that she was secondarily liable due to her owning the account allegedly used for the infringement.
“The Copyright Act does not expressly render anyone liable for infringement committed by another. Rather, the doctrine of secondary liability emerged from common law principles,” wrote Judge Lee. “Under those common law principles, one infringes a copyright contributorily by intentionally inducing or encouraging a direct infringement.”
Judge Lee set out the three elements of a claim for contributory copyright infringement: direct infringement by a third party, knowledge by the defendant that third parties were directly infringing, and substantial participation by the defendant in the infringement. “Merely supplying means to accomplish infringing activity [e.g., an Internet connection] cannot give rise to imposition of liability for contributory copyright infringement,” according to the opinion.
The record labels could not support their argument of secondary liability, according to the judge. Perhaps most importantly, Judge Lee could find no case “holding the mere owner of an Internet account contributorily or vicariously liable for the infringing activities of third persons.”
Obviously the judge’s ruling has had an affect on the trade organization who recently amended their case against Patricia Santangelo and turned their sites on her daughter and son. The Santangelo teenager, Robert is now counter-suing the RIAA. Although this is not worthy of a TV Movie of the Week, it does demonstrate how vunerable the RIAA is when defendents fight back.
The Future: The case against Foster is a major setback for the RIAA and may create some unique precedents that will haunt the organization. First, the ruling forces the RIAA to actually prove it was the defendent using the computer to illegally share music instead of just relying on an IP address. This is the first ruling where a direct relationship between an IP address and an accused party was demonstrated, but deemed insufficient to prove infringement. Second, the court’s finding that the owner of an Internet account cannot be held liable for copyright infringement that occurs without his or her knowledge is another major setback and makes an already thin case against many defendents anorexic.