A jury's decision that a peer-to-peer user should pay the record industry $1.5 million for sharing 24 songs on Kazaa is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled on Friday.
"Such an award is so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportioned to the offense and obviously unreasonable," U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis in Minnesota wrote. He slashed the award to $54,000 or $2,250 per track -- a figure that he called "punitive and substantial."
The federal copyright law provides for damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 for each piece of infringed content, with the exact figure to be determined on a per-case basis. Last November, a jury decided that Jammie Thomas-Rasset should pay $1.5 million for sharing 24 tracks on Kazaa.
Davis on Friday rejected that finding, writing that the jury's award was "appalling." He said that in this case, which involved a "first-time willful, consumer infringer of limited means who committed illegal song file-sharing for her own personal use," any award more than three times the statutory minimum was unconstitutional.
"Thomas-Rasset was not a business acting for profit. Instead, she was an individual consumer illegally seeking free access to music for her own use," Davis wrote. "There is no doubt that a multimillion-dollar penalty is overkill to deter a private individual from obtaining free songs online."
At the same time, Davis acknowledged in his opinion that the figure he arrived at might seem "somewhat arbitrary" -- which could make it vulnerable if the record industry appeals. "Why is an award of $2,251 per song oppressive, while an award of $2,250 is not?" he asked. Answering his own question, he wrote: "The Court must arrive upon a tangible dollar amount. Having carefully weighed all of the relevant factors, the Court concludes that in this case, setting the limit at three times the minimum statutory damages amount is the most reasoned solution."
A spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America said: "We disagree with this decision and are considering our next steps."
Thomas-Rasset's lawyer, Kiwi Camara, said he was happy the judge agreed the $1.5 million award was unconstitutional, but also believes that $54,000 in damages is too high. "We think both sides will appeal and the 6th Circuit will sort it out," he said.
Friday's ruling marks the latest twist in lengthy legal proceedings that have resulted in three separate jury verdicts against Thomas-Rasset. In 2007, a jury found that she had infringed copyright by sharing 24 tracks on Kazaa and ordered her to pay $220,000 total. Davis later set that verdict aside because he had incorrectly instructed the jury about a key component of copyright infringement.
A second jury trial resulted in a finding that she had infringed copyright and a decision that she pay $1.92 million. Davis slashed that verdict to $54,000, but didn't rule that it was unconstitutional. Because he didn't address whether the award was constitutional. The record industry was able to reject his decision and seek another trial solely to assess damages.
(The RIAA offered before that trial to settle with Thomas-Rasset for $25,000, but she rejected the deal.) That third proceeding resulted in a jury verdict that Thomas-Rasset should pay $1.5 million.
Thomas-Rasset is one of only two defendants sued by the RIAA to have a jury trial. Many of the other 18,000-some people accused of infringing copyright on peer-to-peer networks agreed to four-figure settlements. The other Web user to go to trial, Joel Tenenbaum, also lost. In his case, a jury ordered damages of $675,000 for sharing 30 tracks.
But U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner in Boston slashed that award to $2,250 per track, ruling that the figure imposed by the jury was unconstitutional. The RIAA has appealed that case to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which is still considering the matter.
The RIAA stopped filing new lawsuits against noncommercial users in December of 2008.