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Guilty Verdict in Nation's First Music Downloading Jury Case

The nation's first music downloading jury case came to a close yesterday, with the record industry claiming a landmark victory in its efforts to end illegal downloads.

A federal jury this week in Duluth, Minn., has found Jammie Thomas liable of willful copyright infringement after she used the peer-to-peer file-sharing network KaZaA to copy 26 copyrighted songs and distribute another 1,702 digital audio files in February 2005.

The jury awarded the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) $220,000 in damages, an RIAA spokesperson told InternetNews.com.

"We welcome the jury's decision," the RIAA said in a statement. "The law here is clear, as are the consequences for breaking it."

Not everyone is sure about the issue's clarity, however.

While it's safe to say Apple's iTunes store would have been a cheaper way for Thomas to complete her digital music collection, Ethan Ackerman, an attorney in Washington, D.C., and one-time legislative and technology counsel in the U.S. Senate, told InternetNews.com her case isn't necessarily closed yet.

Ackerman, also a contributor to a blog that focuses on technology and marketing, said that because of the way jurors were asked to decide Thomas's verdict, her case could soon go back into trial.

According to him, instructions given to the jury defined "the act of making copyrighted sound recordings available for electronic distribution on a peer-to-peer network, without license from the copyright owners" as a violation of "the copyright owners' exclusive right of distribution, regardless of whether actual distribution has been shown."

In other words, the instructions told jurors that copyright law prohibits the act of sharing a file folder full of digital music over a network, whether or not any digital files are actually transferred over the network. Not everyone would agree with that characterization of copyright law, Ackerman said.

"Is just making [copyrighted content] available without any subsequent copying a violation of the Copyright Act?" Ackerman told InternetNews.com. "That's an unclear question."

He added that much of the Internet, as it's used today, depends on the answer to this question, and whether it's in keeping with this week's ruling.

Still, despite the hazy legal issue of whether Thomas violated copyright by putting digital files into a shared file folder, Ackerman said she's not likely to get away with actually copying songs herself.

That's the message the RIAA wants spread.

"When the evidence is clear, we will continue to bring legal actions against those individuals who have broken the law," the music industry association said in its statement. "This program is important to securing a level playing field for legal online music services and helping ensure that record companies are able to invest in new bands of tomorrow."

Thomas's attorney, Brian Toder, was not immediately available for comment.