On Tuesday, the music industry won its latest action in the long courtroom battle against Jammie Thomas-Rasset of Minnesota, who is accused of illegally downloading and sharing two dozen songs on the Kazaa peer-to-peer network. The decision of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstating the $222,000 jury verdict against the defendant strengthened the music industry’s ability to prosecute individuals under the Copyright Act.
The law allows copyright owners to recover damages between $750 and $150,000 for each infringed work. Jammie Thomas-Rasset had argued that the damages awarded were excessive and violated her due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. The appellate court disagreed.
Tuesday’s ruling seems to be the tip of the iceberg as the music industry may well lead the way to U.S.’s economic recovery, while pursuing lawsuits against at least 18,000 individuals sued by the Recording Industry Association of America between 2003 and 2008 for illegally downloading and sharing copyrighted music.
The case has had its ups and downs, and may head for superior courts given its history. Thomas-Rasset was first accused in 2006 for illegally downloading more than 1,700 files by the Recording Industry Association of America. When no settlement could be reached, the association sued.
In her first 2007 trial, which she lost, Thomas-Rasset was ordered to pay $222,000, but the jury award was thrown out by the court due to faulty jury instruction.
In her next trial, Thomas-Rasset testified that possibly her ex-boyfriend or her sons, then 8 and 10 were responsible for downloading and distributing the songs. This, somehow curiously, happened to incense the jury who ordered her to pay the record companies an amount of $1.92 million. The court held the jury award to be “shocking” and reduced the damages to $54,000.
However, the record companies, including Sony BMG Entertainment, UMG Recordings Inc and Arista Records, refused to accept the reduced award and exercised their rights to have a new trial. A third jury awarded $1.5 million in damages to the record companies. However, the district court again reduced the jury award to $54,000, holding that was the maximum amount allowable under due process.
The record companies appealed, and on Tuesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit reinstated the original $222,000 award made by the first jury.
The appellate court observed that the award of $222,000 was not “so severe and oppressive” as to violate the constitution, rather, it amounted to only $9,250 per song, which was at the lower end of the range of $750 to $150,000 established by the Congress for such violation of copyrights.
The lawyer for Thomas-Rasset said the damages award was “punitive” and inconsistent with the rulings of the Supreme Court.
The 8th Circuit case is Capitol Records Inc et al v. Thomas-Rasset, No. 11-2820.