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Supreme Court declines to hear petition over $222,000 music piracy judgment

Decision means woman's dizzying multi-year legal saga over

March 18, 2013 06:05 PM ET

Computerworld - Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesota woman who has been fighting for years to reverse a $222,000 judgment for music piracy, finally ran out of legal appeals on Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her petition for a review of the case.

The decision means that Thomas-Rasset will either have to find a way to pay the money or negotiate to reduce the amount with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the trade body representing the music industry in the case.

Ray Beckerman, a lawyer who has represented individuals in music piracy cases, called the Supreme Court's decision unsurprising but disappointing all the same.

"It doesn't necessarily say anything about the Supreme Court's views on the subject," Beckerman said. "Very, very few certiorari petitions are ever granted [by the Supreme Court."

"It saddens me that the Supreme Court did not take the case on," he added.

At this point, Thomas-Rasset can either do nothing and let the RIAA try to collect what it can, file bankruptcy to discharge the debt, or settle.

Thomas-Rasset lawyer K.A.D. "Kiwi" Kamara told Computerworld today that the decision was disappointing, but declined to comment on what Thomas-Rasset will do next.

Cara Duckworth, a spokeswoman for the RIAA, expressed satisfaction at today's decision. "We appreciate the Court's decision and are pleased that the legal case is finally over," Duckworth said. "We've been willing to settle this case from day one and remain willing to do so."

The Thomas-Rasset case goes back to 2005, when Sony BMG, Arista Records, Warner Brothers and three other music labels accused her of illegally downloading and distributing more than 1,700 songs. They sued her over a representative sample of 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 staggering $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 agreed with the RIAA 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.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, however, reinstated the original $222,000 judgment after the RIAA appealed the $54,000 fine. The Supreme Court's refusal to hear Thomas-Rasset's appeal of the Eighth Circuit's ruling means that the dizzying legal battle is finally over.

The decision marks the second time that the nation's highest court has declined to review a music piracy case involving a huge fine. Last May, the court declined to hear a similar petition filed by Joel Tenenbaum, a former doctoral student at Harvard University who was hit with a $675,000 fine for music piracy.

An Associated Press story on Monday quoted Thomas-Rasset as saying there's no way she can pay the $222,000 fine if the recording companies tried to collect on the fine. "There's no way that they can collect."

"Right now, I get energy assistance because I have four kids," she said. "It's just the one income. My husband isn't working. It's not possible for them to collect even if they wanted to. I have no assets."

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

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