Minnesota woman appeals $1.9M music piracy fine

Verdict 'excessive, shocking and monstrous,' says the accused, Jammie Thomas-Rasset

The woman ordered to pay $1.92 million in fines for illegally distributing 24 copyrighted songs said she will appeal, and called the June 18 jury verdict "excessive, shocking and monstrous."

In a 13-page motion filed in federal district court in Duluth on Monday, Jammie Thomas-Rasset implored the judge to overturn the verdict, reduce the damages to the statutory minimum, or to order a new trial.

Thomas-Rasset was accused by six-music companies of illegally distributing a total of 1,702 copyrighted songs over the Kazaa file sharing network. Their lawsuit itself though focused on a representative sample of just 24 of those songs.

A jury which first heard her case back in October 2007, found Thomas-Rasset guilty of illegal music distribution and ordered her to pay the six companies a total of $222,000 in damages.

That decision was later overturned on technical grounds by U.S. District Judge Michael Davis the federal judge in charge of the case and a retrial was ordered last year.

The retrial, which took place in June, lasted four-days and ended with the new jury also finding Thomas-Rasset guilty of illegal music distribution, and hither with the $1.92 million fine -- about nine times the $222,000 that had been assessed against her in the first trial.

In her motion, Thomas-Rasset said that the fine assessed against her in the retrial exceeded the constitutional limits on civil punishment and appeared designed explicitly to deter others rather than to compensate the six music companies that had sued her for piracy.

A civil punishment is unconstitutional if the penalty far exceeds the actual damages the plaintiffs might have suffered, as happened in this case where the jury fined her $80,000 for each song she allegedly pirated, Thomas-Rasset said.

"Here, where the punishment ratios are 1:62,015 measured in songs and 1:5,333 measured in albums, the verdict is both monstrous and shocking," Thomas-Rasset said in her motion.

Though the Copyright Act, under which Thomas-Rasset was sued, allows for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per song, her lawyers urged the judge to consider lowering the damages to $18,000 or $750 per song which is the minimum available under the law.

In making the request, Thomas-Rasset's lawyers noted that their client "was a single mother who, at worst, downloaded and shared some music on Kazaa, music for which she had already lawfully purchased the CDs, without any hint at all of a commercial motive."

In their motion, Thomas-Rasset's lawyers yesterday also asked the judge hearing the case to order a new trial. The lawyers argued that much of the evidence used against her in court had been improperly collected by Media Sentry Inc, a firm working on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

They said the evidence gathered by Media Sentry should have been suppressed because the company had collected the information without first obtaining a private investigator's license as it was required to. A similar motion filed before the trial began was rejected by the judge.

The Thomas-Rasset case has attracted considerable attention because it is the first RIAA music piracy case to actually go to trial, even though the trade association has slapped copyright lawsuits on thousands of individuals over the past few years.

The case has often been used as an example of what many say are the excessive and unconstitutional damages being sought by the RIAA in its effort to scare people off online copyright infringement.

Last month's verdict added to those concerns with several rights groups blasting the damages and calling it outrageous and unfair. The RIAA itself has consistently maintained that it has been willing to negotiate a settlement with Thomas-Rasset all along and that the case went to court only because of her refusal to settle.

RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth said by e-mail that Thomas-Rasset has now been found liable twice by two different juries. She said that although yesterday's motion is "saturated" with mentions about the 24 songs at the middle of the case, it ignores the fact that the total number of songs distributed by Thomas-Rasset was actually more than 1,000.

"Both juries repeatedly heard that Ms. Thomas-Rasset was caught illegally downloading and distributing more than 1,700 songs to at least 2.3 million people on the Kazaa file-trading network," Duckworth said. "[That's] like standing on a busy street corner with 150 CDs and giving out free copies to everyone who walks by."

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Jaikumar Vijayan

Computerworld (US)
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