Third jury fines Minnesota woman $1.5M for pirating 24 songs

Jury rejected arguments that that earlier awards in case brought by RIAA were excessive

A federal jury this week ordered Minnesota native Jammie Thomas-Rasset to pay $1.5 million to six music companies for pirating 24 of their copyrighted songs. The decision came in the third trial on the same issue.

The decision, handed down in a Minnesota federal court on Wednesday, cut more than $400,000 from the $1.92 million that Thomas-Rasset was ordered to pay the companies by a separate jury in June 2009. The first jury to hear the case in 2007 had ordered Thomas-Rasset to pay $222,000 to the firms.

Yesterday's verdict, which works out to a fine of $62,500 per song, was not entirely unexpected. Both previous juries had found Thomas-Rasset liable for illegally copying and distributing the 24 songs. The latest trial was held to hear Thomas-Rasset's argument that the latest award was excessive.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), representing the music companies involved, filed the original complaint in 2006 claiming that Thomas-Rasset had illegally downloaded more than 1,700 songs and had made them available to more than 2 million users on the Kazaa file-sharing network. The complaint included a representative sample of 24 of those songs.

Thomas-Rasset's lawyers had asked the court to consider the constitutionality of the initial damage amounts assessed against Thomas-Rasset. The copyright laws that are being used by the RIAA in its lawsuit against Thomas-Rasset provide for statutory damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 for a single violation.

The defense team argued that the laws were designed to punish commercial copyright infringers, not individuals. However, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis who is hearing the case refused to consider those arguments as well as a defense motion to reduce the damages to the statutory minimum, or $18,000.

In a ruling in January, David reduced the award to $54,000 or $2,250 per violation, which he said was the maximum that was reasonably allowable in this case. Following that ruling, the RIAA stepped in and offered to settle the case for $25,000, which it said at the time would be used to help struggling musicians.

Thomas-Rasset declined to accept the offer and instead challenged the award again. If the case goes no further, it's likely she will have to pay $54,000 to the companies as ordered by Davis in January.

It's more likely, though, that Thomas-Rasset will once again appeal the verdict, arguing that it is unconstitutional, said Ray Beckerman, a New York lawyer who has represented individuals in past lawsuits filed by the RIAA.

"The verdict is of course ridiculous," said Beckerman who maintains a blog site that chronicles music piracy lawsuits filed by the RIAA. "But I'm not surprised, since the jury instructions virtually compelled such a ludicrous outcome."

Rather than leaving it to the jury, the judge should have simply awarded the statutory minimum or less to the music companies, Beckerman said. Or he should have ordered both sides to conduct pretrial discovery to determine the actual damages sustained by the record companies, he added.

In an e-mail statement, an RIAA spokeswoman praised the latest verdict. "Now with three jury decisions behind us, along with a clear affirmation of Ms. Thomas-Rasset's willful liability, it is our hope that she finally accepts responsibility for her actions," she said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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