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A federal court held last week that Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesota single mother of four, must pay $1.92 million in damages to record companies for illegally downloading 24 songs from online file-sharing services.
The verdict actually marks the end of Thomas-Rasset’s second trial. The first had ended in a much smaller judgment of $222,000 for the record companies, but the judge vacated it after finding that he had given faulty instructions to the jury.
The Recording Industry Association of America, which brought the suit, has spent the last five years in a major litigation campaign against illegal downloading, netting some 30,000 defendants. Most agreed to out-of-court settlements and paid no more than a few thousand dollars. Thomas-Rasset twice rejected such offers, one for as little as $5,000.
The astronomical size of the award was made possible by the 1976 Copyright Act, which allows courts to impose penalties of up to $150,000 for a single copyright infringement. The judgment against Thomas-Rasset amounts to $80,000 for each illegally downloaded song.
Experts believe this news could spark a copyright reform movement. In an upcoming paper, Pamela Samuelson and Tara Wheatland–professor and fellow at University of California, Berkeley School of Law, respectively–argue for major changes to the Copyright Act. They argue that judges and juries need greater congressional guidance when it comes to determining damages: “We know of no other area of law in which judges and juries are given such open-ended discretion to award up to $150,000 in damages without any burden of proof on plaintiff to prove the fact or extent of the harms they suffered,” the two have written.
Richard Marx, one of the musicians whose music Thomas-Rasset illegally downloaded, said in a recent statement that “holding Ms. Thomas-Rasset accountable for the continuing daily actions of hundreds of thousands of people is, at best, misguided and at worst, farcical.” He said in closing: “Ms. Thomas-Rasset, I think you got a raw deal, and I’m ashamed to have my name associated with this issue.”
– Chad Burchard
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