In what should serve as another stark warning to students about the repercussions of illegally sharing music online, a replay of the nation’s first file-sharing case to go to trial has ended with the same result, finding a Minnesota woman to have violated music copyrights and ordering her to pay hefty damages to the recording industry.
A federal jury ruled June 17 that Jammie Thomas-Rasset willfully violated the copyrights on 24 songs and awarded recording companies $1.92 million, or $80,000 per song.
Thomas-Rasset’s second trial actually turned out worse for her. When a different federal jury heard her case in 2007, it hit Thomas-Rasset with a $222,000 judgment.
The new trial was ordered after the judge in the case decided he had erred in giving jury instructions.
Thomas-Rasset sat glumly with her chin in hand as she heard the jury’s finding of willful copyright infringement, which increased the potential penalty. She raised her eyebrows in surprise when the jury’s penalty of $80,000 per song was read.
Outside the courtroom, she was resigned.
“There’s no way they’re ever going to get that,” said Thomas-Rasset, a 32-year-old mother of four from the central Minnesota city of Brainerd. “I’m a mom, limited means, so I’m not going to worry about it now.”
Her attorney, Kiwi Camara, said he was surprised by the size of the judgment. He said it suggested that jurors didn’t believe Thomas-Rasset’s denials of illegal file-sharing, and that they were angry with her.
Camara said he and his client hadn’t decided whether to appeal or pursue the Recording Industry Association of America’s settlement overtures.
Cara Duckworth, a spokeswoman for the RIAA, said the industry remains willing to settle, but she refused to name a figure.
In closing arguments earlier in the day, attorneys for both sides disputed what the evidence showed.
An attorney for the recording industry, Tim Reynolds, said the “greater weight of the evidence” showed that Thomas-Rasset was responsible for the illegal file-sharing that took place on her computer. He urged jurors to hold her accountable to deter others from a practice he said has significantly harmed the people who bring music to everyone.
Defense attorney Joe Sibley said the music companies failed to prove allegations that Thomas-Rasset gave away songs by Gloria Estefan, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Journey, and others.
“Only Jammie Thomas’s computer was linked to illegal file-sharing on Kazaa,” Sibley said. “They couldn’t put a face behind the computer.”
Sibley urged jurors not to ruin Thomas-Rasset’s life with a debt she could never pay. Under federal law, the jury could have awarded up to $150,000 per song.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who heard the first lawsuit in 2007, ordered up a new trial after deciding he had erred in instructions to jurors.
For the retrial, Davis instructed the jurors that in order to find Thomas-Rasset infringed any copyrights, they had to determine that someone actually downloaded the songs. He said distribution needed to occur, though he didn’t explicitly define distribution. Before, Davis said simply making the songs available on the Kazaa file-sharing network was enough.
This case was the first of more than 30,000 similar lawsuits to make it all the way to trial. The vast majority of people targeted by the music industry had settled for about $3,500 each.
Another music-sharing trial soon to get under way concerns a Boston University graduate student who is being defended by Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson in a challenge to the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999, the basis for the RIAA’s claims. (See “Harvard law professor fires back at RIAA.”