If 20,000-plus lawsuits by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) aren't enough to show US residents that the unauthorised sharing of music files will cause legal problems, now there's a $222,000 jury verdict against a Minnesota woman.

And still, the beat goes on.

In 2006, 15m US households downloaded an unauthorised file using P-to-P (peer-to-peer) software, an eight per cent increase from 2005, according to The NPD Group, a market-research firm that tracks digital downloads.

A jury in the US District Court for the District of Minnesota in Duluth Thursday ordered Jammie Thomas to pay $222,000 for sharing 24 songs using the Kazaa P-to-P software. In the first jury trial for one of the RIAA lawsuits, Thomas was found guilty of sharing songs owned by companies including Capitol Records, Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Bros. Records.

Advocates of strong copyright law praised the jury's decision.

"It's unclear why this woman would compound one mistake, offering thousands of songs to strangers, with another one, turning down a settlement in favor of a trial in which she had no evidence to give," said Patrick Ross, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, an advocacy group representing the music industry and other copyright holders. "Hopefully, this will help more people to understand that these are illegal actions with real harms for songwriters and performing artists."

Many US residents don't seem to be getting the message.

The number of US households using paid music download services is increasing, but there are still two million fewer than the households that used P-to-P software to download music in 2006, NPD said. And while the rate of growth in P-to-P users slowed in 2006, the number of files downloaded through P-to-P services increased 47 per cent between 2005 and 2006, from 3.4bn to 5bn, the company said.

In contrast, the number of legally-purchased music downloads in 2006 was about 500m, a 56 per cent increase from 2005, NDP said. Still, the number of legal downloads is "swamped by the sheer volume" of files traded illegally over P-to-P networks, NDP entertainment industry analyst Russ Crupnick said in a news release.

The RIAA pledged, in a statement, to "continue to bring legal actions against those individuals who have broken the law."

The RIAA's series of lawsuits against alleged file traders, begun in September 2003, is important for "securing a level playing field for legal online music services" and for helping record companies invest in new artists, the RIAA added.

"The law here is clear, as are the consequences for breaking it," the trade group said.

Several critics called the court judgment a hallow victory for the recording industry.

"Despite today's verdict, tens of millions of Americans will continue sharing billions of songs, just as they have since Napster let the P2P genie out of the bottle nearly eight years ago," Hugh D'Andrade, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote on the organization's website. "Every lawsuit makes the recording industry look more and more like King Canute, vainly trying to hold back the tide."

Canute, a Viking king in the eleventh century, sat his throne on the beach and attempted to hold back the tide, according to legend.

Instead of lawsuits, the recording industry should embrace collective licensing of music file sharing, D'Andrade wrote.

While the evidence against Thomas may have been sketchy before trial, the music industry proved its case in court, Ed Felton, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, noted in his blog.

While she argued that someone else must have downloaded the music, the RIAA lawyers showed that the Kazaa user had a user name that Thomas has used on other services and downloaded songs by her favourite artists, Felton said.

But Felton was struck by the size of the verdict, with damages of $9,250 per song. "That’s more than nine hundred times what the songs would have cost at retail," he wrote. "There is no way that Jammie Thomas caused $222,000 of harm to the record industry, so the jury’s purpose in awarding the damages has to be seen as punishment rather than compensation.

"All of this, over songs that would have cost $23.76 from iTunes."