DOJ: $222,000 award in RIAA copyright case not excessive

Such awards are designed to both punish defendants and compensate plaintiffs

The U.S. Department of Justice says a US$222,000 damage award in a music copyright infringement case won recently by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is constitutional.

In a 20-page brief filed today in U.S District Court in Minnesota, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bucholtz said that the damages assessed by a jury against Jammie Thomas, the defendant in the case, were not excessive.

"Given the findings of copyright infringement in this case, the damages awarded under the Copyright Act's statutory damages provision did not violate the Due Process Clause" of the Constitution, the brief noted. They were not "so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportioned to the offense...."

The government brief was filed in response to an earlier motion by Thomas challenging the constitutionality of the US$222,000 she was ordered to pay for willfully infringing copyrights belonging to six different music labels.

The 12-person jury ordered Thomas to pay US$9,250 for each of the 24 songs central to the case. In their complaint, the six music companies claimed that Thomas had illegally shared a total of 1,702 songs over the Kazaa file-sharing network, but they chose to focus on a representative list of 24 songs. Statutes allow for damages of between US$750 and US$30,000 per infringement, with a maximum of US$150,000 for a willful violation.

The case marked the first time that the RIAA had actually won a lawsuit in its fight against music piracy and was greeted with dismay by the thousands of other individuals against whom it has filed similar cases.

Thomas herself appealed the verdict on the grounds that the damages were far in excess of any actual damages that the music labels might have incurred as a result of her actions, and were therefore unconstitutional. In her appeal, Thomas argued that since the music labels made just around 70 cents per song, even the minimum statutory damages of US$750 were excessive.

In its response, the DOJ dismissed Thomas' arguments and said the statutory damages provision in the Copyright Act were crafted to ensure both a "compensatory and a deterrent purpose."

The brief noted that both the value of a copyright and the loss caused by an infringement are hard, if not impossible, to determine.

"Although defendant claims that plaintiffs' damages are 70 cents per infringing copy, it is unknown how many other users -- potentially millions -- committed subsequent acts of infringement with the illegal copies of works that the defendant infringed," Bucholtz said. "It is s impossible to calculate the damages caused by a single infringement, particularly for infringement that occurs over the Internet."

The DOJ decision -- like the entire Thomas case -- is likely to come as a disappointment for the more than 26,000 individuals against whom the RIAA has filed similar claims over the past two years. Many were outraged at the size of the damages awarded by the jury and some lawyers had even predicted that it would be struck down as being excessive.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

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