$222,000 Music Piracy Fine Not Unconstitutional, Court Rules

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The most recent step in the never-ending Thomas-Rasset music piracy case occurred today with the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruling in favor of the RIAA. In its ruling the court decided that the outcome of the first trial in 2007 was indeed correct, and that Thomas-Rasset owes $222,000 to the major music labels.

The RIAA vs. Thomas-Rasset has been a long and tortuous case, with three trials over the last five years. After finally progressing to the appeals stage, the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit has now ruled in favor of the RIAA and its member companies.

The court decided that the initial damages award was not unconstitutional, and has reinstated it.

The case was first brought to trial in 2007, where an award of $222,000 was made by the jury. The judge then admitted to an error in the jury instructions before offering a second trial. At this second trial in June 2009 the jury awarded the music industry $90,000 per song, to a total of $1.92 million.

Thomas-Rasset then appealed again, saying the damages were excessive. The judge reduced the damages to $54,000 ($2,250 per song) before offering a third trial, exclusively to deal with the issue of damages. This court only dealt with the damages and awarded the music industry $1.5 million in 2010, before the judge again reduced it to $54,000.

Now the appeals court has stepped in and reinstated the 2007 verdict.

“On the question of damages, we conclude that a statutory damages award of $9,250 for each of the twenty-four infringed songs, for a total of $222,000, does not contravene the Due Process Clause. The district court erred in reducing the third jury’s verdict to $2,250 per work, for a total of $54,000, on the ground that this amount was the maximum permitted by the Constitution.”

There is some amazing reasoning in the ruling, including the assertion that Congress was well aware of online copyright infringement back in 1999.

“Congress no doubt was aware of the serious problem posed by online copyright infringement, and the ‘numberless opportunities for committing the offense,’ when it last revisited the Copyright Act in 1999. To provide a deterrent against such infringement, Congress amended § 504(c) to increase the minimum per-work award from $500 to $750, the maximum per-work award from $20,000 to $30,000, and the maximum per-work award for willful infringement from $100,000 to $150,000.”

The fact that Thomas-Rasset was a regular user who made no special effort to distribute or advertise the availability of the files in her shared folder means she was about as passive as it was possible to be, but the court saw things differently. In the ruling Thomas-Rasset’s actions are described as “an aggravated case of willful infringement.”

Despite the setback Thomas’s lawyers have made it clear that they intend to continue appealing, to the U.S. Supreme Court if need be, although they’ve made no announcement yet in response to the current ruling.

The saga of the file-sharing case that will not die continues on, and looks likely to do so for some time yet (as will the Tenenbaum case). One thing’s for certain, neither will be concluded any time soon.


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