In what appears to be the first known case of its kind, the RIAA has been ordered to pay a defendant nearly $70,000 in attorney fees and costs after unsuccessfully suing for copyright infringement.
According to court documents, the Recording Industry Association of America first contacted Oklahoma resident Deborah Foster by phone in 2004. An RIAA settlement representative accused her of downloading copyrighted material off the file-sharing program, Kazaa, using the screen name "fllygirl11," and demanded a payment of $5,000. Foster refused, claiming she did not download any songs from the internet. The settlement representative responded by offering to go down as far as $3,750, but Foster again refused to pay.
(RIAA watchdog Recording Industry vs. The People have been following the paperwork.)
In response, the RIAA filed suit against Deborah Foster in November 2004. Her adult daughter Amanda was added to the complaint in July 2005 when it was indicated that she had access to the internet account. Because Amanda failed to defend herself against the complaint, the RIAA won the case against her by default.
The ruling against Deborah was then amended to allege she "contributorily and/or vicariously" infringed on copyrighted recordings.
The RIAA continued its lawsuit against Deborah Foster, claiming she was liable as the owner of the internet account responsible for the copyright infringement. Foster refused to settle with the RIAA outside of court, and as the case dragged on, her litigation investment became considerable.
On July 13, 2006 the Oklahoma court ordered the RIAA's claims against Foster be dismissed with prejudice and ruled she was eligible to be awarded attorneys fees. The court was skeptical that "an internet-illiterate parent, who does not know Kazaa from a kazoo" could be liable for copyright infringement committed by someone else using her internet account.
Foster first requested $105,680.75 in attorney fees, but the RIAA objected to this, claiming the figure was unreasonable and that she was not entitled to fees for work that could have been avoided "had she assisted the RIAA or acceded to settlement." The court eventually whittled the award down to $68,685.23 in a 14-page document which itemized her expenses.
A RIAA representative would not talk to us about the case, and said she did not know if it was the first time attorneys' fees were rewarded to a defendant in similar RIAA copyright lawsuits.
The organization has gained notoriety for its fight against copyright infringement through blind pursuit of improbable offenders and gross intimidation. Last month, an unemployed single mom renewed a legal challenge against the RIAA, accusing the organization of contacting her 10-year-old daughter at school by impersonating the girl's grandmother on the phone. The organization claims it has been successful in a recent campaign of blanketing colleges with threatening legal letters, and offering to absolve students guilty or otherwise if they pay a settlement at an RIAA website (major credit cards accepted.)
"My thoughts are that this award, together with some interesting interim decisions against the RIAA in other cases, will be incentive for more defendants to vigorously fight the RIAA, and of course where successful, demand attorneys' fees," said Leonard Rubin, an attorney at Chicago-based Reed Smith Sachnoff & Weaver.
Rubin does not, however, believe the case will serve as a deterrent to the RIAA in its lawsuit campaign. "The RIAA is in a headlong rush to discourage downloaders, many of them college students, from unlawfully copying copyrighted music, and the RIAA apparently doesn't care how much it costs them — they do not file these cases for the sake of collecting either settlement money or monetary judgments."®