Supreme Court Refuses To Hear File-Sharer's Appeal

The Supreme Court has refused to hear Jammie Thomas-Rasset's appeal of an order requiring her to pay $220,000 to the record industry for sharing 24 tracks on Kazaa.

That decision, announced this week, seems to mark the end of legal proceedings in the long-running file-sharing case. Thomas-Rasset was among 12,500-some people sued by the Recording Industry Association of America during a five-year campaign against individual file-sharers. Many of the defendants resolved the cases by agreeing to pay four-figure settlements to the RIAA.

But Thomas-Rasset refused to settle and took her case to trial. In 2007, a jury found her liable for infringement and ordered her to pay $220,000, or $9,500 per work infringed.

That award was later set aside, and a second trial was held. A second jury also found her liable, and ordered her to pay a staggering $1.92 million. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis reduced that verdict to $54,000, using a procedure called "remittitur." But the RIAA was entitled to reject the remittitur, which it did. A subsequent third trial, focused on damages, resulted in a jury verdict for $1.5 million. Davis cut that award down to $54,000 as well, ruling that anything higher would be unconstitutional.

Everyone appealed to the 8th Circuit, which reinstated the original $220,000 verdict in September.

Thomas-Rasset then asked the Supreme Court to hear her appeal of the damage award.

The copyright statute itself calls for damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 per work infringed. At $9,500 per track, the verdict falls within that range. But she argued that the figure was so arbitrary -- as shown by the fact that three juries reached widely different damage awards -- that it violated her right to due process of law.

The Obama administration weighed in against Thomas-Rasset, arguing that the case was "not an appropriate vehicle to decide" whether a six-figure verdict for non-commercial file sharing violates the Constitution.

Now that the Supreme Court has turned away Thomas-Rasset, the verdict against her is final. Still, the verdict is obviously problematic. After all, Thomas-Rasset was just one random file-sharer, out of millions. She certainly wasn't the only person to upload the 24 particular songs at issue. It's hard to see how she personally caused the record labels $220,000 worth of harm.

The RIAA itself recognized in 2008 that suing individual file-sharers wasn't accomplishing much in its war on piracy. The organization announced at that time that it was going to discontinue its litigation campaign and instead work with Internet service providers to sanction suspected file-sharers.

That initiative just launched last month. Whether it will work any better than lawsuits remains to be seen, but it's worth noting that music piracy appears to have dropped before the new program started. The NPD Group recently reported that the volume of music downloaded from peer-to-peer services and from digital lockers dropped 26% in the last year. At the same time, worldwide music sales rose 0.3% last year -- marking the first revenue increase since 1999 -- according to the industry group International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

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