Court: $30,000 for Sharing a Pirated Movie is Excessive Punishment

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A federal court in Washington has rejected a $30,000 damages award against several Internet subscribers accused of downloading a pirated movie via BitTorrent. Judge Thomas Rice doubted that filmmakers were hurt much by the pirates and said the requested amount would be "excessive punishment."

cashOver the past several years hundreds of thousands of Internet subscribers have been sued in the United States for allegedly sharing copyrighted material, mostly films, online.

The goal of these lawsuits is to encourage alleged downloader to settle, and in some cases copyright holders continue proceedings against the defendants after being identified by their ISPs.

If the alleged pirates then fail to respond, the rightsholder can ask the court for a default judgment, where they usually get their way.

This also happened in lawsuits brought by the makers of the independent films Elf-Man and The Thompsons. In both cases the copyright holders asked the court for a default judgment of $30,000 for sharing a single film.

With 11 defendants, including one couple who would share the fine, the potential damage award amounted to a massive $300,000. The copyright holders argued that this is justified since they suffered significant losses as a result, but the court disagreed.

In related orders U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice notes that a $30,000 punishment per shared film is excessive, considering the evidence that was presented.

“This Court finds the evidence in this case, which merely shows that each Defendant copied and published via BitTorrent Plaintiff’s motion picture––the cost of which to rent or purchase was less than $20––rather than distributed for commercial resale, does not support a $30,000 penalty for each Defendant,” Judge Rice writes.

In his order the Judge refers to the Eighth Amendment which prohibits excessive fines as well as cruel and unusual punishments. In this case the requested damages are unconstitutional as they’re seen as excessive in relation to the nature of the offense.

“This Court finds an award of $30,000 for each defendant would be an excessive punishment considering the seriousness of each Defendant’s conduct and
the sum of money at issue,” the order reads.

The filmmakers argued that the pirated downloads threaten the financing of future films and that high damages could serve as a deterrent. Judge Rice, however, was not convinced and set these arguments aside.

“… this Court is unpersuaded that the remote damages––’downstream revenue’ and destroyed plans for a sequel due, in part, to piracy––justify an award of $30,000 per defendant, even in light of the statute’s goal of deterrence.”

Judge Rice opted to award the minimum in statutory damages instead, which is $750 per film. In addition, he awarded $2,225 in attorney fees per defendant, which brings the total to a little under $3,000.

This is not the first time that the Eighth Amendment has been raised in a file-sharing case. The same argument was used to lower the damages award in RIAA’s case against Jammie Thomas, although this was overturned on appeal.

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