The U.S. Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from a Texas teenager who got in trouble for illegal downloading of music—a potential blow to students who might claim to be “innocent infringers” of copyright laws after downloading music without paying and bogging down campus networks.
Whitney Harper of Texas acknowledged she used file-sharing programs to download and share three dozen songs, claiming she didn’t know the program she used was taking songs from the internet illegally.
She also said the money she owes the recording industry should be reduced because, as a 16-year-old, she didn’t know that what she did amounted to copyright infringement.
The justices rejected Harper’s appeal Nov. 29 over a dissent from Justice Samuel Alito.
The issue in the case is whether people who illegally download and swap music online can try to show they did so innocently. Harper wanted the money owed for each song cut to $200 from $750.
“Under this interpretation, it is not necessary that the infringer actually see a material object with the copyright notice,” Alito wrote in his dissent. “It is enough that the infringer could have ascertained that the work was copyrighted.”
Alito continued: “In any event, the Court of Appeals rejected petitioner’s argument that her youth and lack of legal sophistication were relevant considerations—a conclusion that would not necessarily be correct if the determinative question were simply whether petitioner had ‘reason to believe’ that her actions were illegal. Although ‘reason to believe’ is an objective standard, it is by no means clear that certain objective characteristics of the infringer—such as age—may not be taken into account.”
Recording industry executives sued or threatened to sue about 40,000 people for illegal downloading last year, many of them high school and college students who used home or campus networks to rip songs and movies with the help of file-sharing programs.
Avenues for legal music downloads have become scarce in recent years.