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Supreme Court review sought of $222K verdict in music piracy case

Damage award is unconstitutional, lawyers for Thomas-Rasset argue

December 11, 2012 06:44 AM ET

Computerworld - A woman ordered to pay $222,000 for pirating 24 copyrighted songs has taken her fight against the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a petition filed Monday, lawyers for Minnesota native Jammie Thomas-Rasset urged the nation's highest court to review both the fairness and the constitutionality of the fine.

The petition contends that the damages awarded against Thomas-Rasset violated her due process rights and was not tied to any actual injury suffered by the recording companies as the result of her piracy. Instead, by securing such a large verdict against her, the RIAA was hoping to send a message to other copyright infringers.

"Thomas-Rasset cannot be punished for the harm inflicted on the recording industry by file sharing in general," the petition notes. "While that would no doubt help accomplish the industry's and Congress's goal of deterring copyright infringement, singling out and punishing an individual in a civil case to a degree entirely out of proportion with her individual offense is not a constitutional means of achieving that goal."

The petition is the latest in a saga dating back to 2005 between Thomas-Rasset and six recording companies that include Sony BMG, Arista Records and Warner Brothers. The music companies accused her of illegally downloading and distributing more than 1,700 songs. They sued her over a representative sample of just 24 of those songs. The copyright laws under which Thomas-Rasset was sued allow for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringement.

The first jury to hear the case, in 2007, found Thomas-Rasset liable for willful copyright infringement and awarded the music companies a total of $222,000 in damages.

That verdict was later set aside on a legal technicality and the case went to trial for a second time in 2009. This time, the jury hit Thomas-Rasset with a $1.92 million fine, a figure that was knocked down to $54,000 by the presiding District Court judge, who described the jury award as out of proportion to any damages the music labels may have suffered.

The case went before a jury for the third time in 2010, after the music labels challenged the $54,000 verdict and claimed that they were entitled to higher statutory damages. The third jury too agreed and awarded the music labels damages of $62,500 per song for a total of $1.5 million.

That figure was again reduced to $54,000 by a federal judge who held the amount was the maximum allowable under the Due Process Clause, which holds that punitive damages may not be unreasonably excessive and must always be proportional to the actual damages suffered by an entity.



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