File sharing fines go mainstream

Many see as harsh the recent $220,000 fine levied  on a Minnesota housewife for online music sharing, but it’s more appropriate to view this action as a significant milestone in the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) strategy to crack down on illegal music and try to push people to legal file downloading.   The coverage on this file sharing case is overwhelming and it will be very interesting to see how the online community will absorb this verdict.

CNET’s Declan has a good summary of key points in this RIAA case here, although in one sense it should be easy to understand the verdict because pretty much everybody knows file sharing is illegal!    Common use does not make file sharing “fair use”. 

Now, one can make a reasonable case that the illegality of file sharing is a trivial offense – something like driving going 58 mph in a 55 mph zone.  One can hammer home this point noting that simply making a mix tape for friends is also technically illegal but never enforced by RIAA, and that gray areas about in the law surrounding intellectual property.    But only foolish people (ie a lot of people) seem to argue that file sharing is a perfectly legal activity.

So, what is the solution here?   RIAA would say it is for everybody to stop illegal downloads and sign up for paid services.   Yet RIAA must be spending far more than 220k on this case, and won’t ever get that much from her anyway.  Given the difficulties of prosecution and the prevalence of the behavior I think the laws should to be modified to reflect widespread accepted social standards while still protecting copyright holders.  However this may just open up a new hornet’s nest of legal complications.