Judge Slashes ‘Appalling’ $1.5 Million File Sharing Verdict to $54,000by David Kravets, m.wired.com
July 22nd 2011
A federal judge has lowered a file sharing verdict to $54,000 from $1.5 million, ruling Friday that the jury’s award “for stealing 24 songs for personal use is appalling.”
The decision by U.S. District Judge Michael Davis follows the third trial in the Recording Industry Association of America’s lawsuit against Jammie Thomas-Rasset, the first file sharer to take an RIAA lawsuit to a jury trial. Under the case’s latest iteration, a Minnesota jury dinged her in November $62,500 for each of 22 songs she pilfered on Kazaa.
With the decision, Judge Davis has now overturned the judgments of three separate juries in the case dating to 2007. And Friday’s outcome is not likely to be the last word, either.
Thomas-Rasset, of Brainerd, Minnesota, has repeatedly vowed to appeal what her lawyers said were “excessive damages.” Her first trial ended with a $222,000 judgment, but Davis declared a mistrial, on the grounds that he’d improperly instructed the jury on a point of law. After the second trial, Davis tentatively reduced the award from $1.92 million to $54,000, and ordered a new trial on damages if the parties didn’t agree to that amount or settle. That third trial last year ended in the $1.5 million judgement that Davis overruled Friday.
The RIAA has maintained that judges do not have the power to lower jury verdicts in cases concerning the Copyright Act, which allows damages of as much as $150,000 a music track. Judge Davis, however, said Friday that fairness demanded his decision to reduce the award to $2,250 per track.
The jury’s award was “so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportionate to the offense and obviously unreasonable,” he wrote.
The three verdicts prove that federal juries are willing to slap file sharers with monster awards. The only other file sharing case to have gone to trial resulted in a Boston jury awarding the RIAA $675,000 for 30 songs, which a judge reduced last year to $67,500.
Davis was the nation’s first judge to reduce the amount of damages in a Copyright Act case.
The third trial involved the jury assuming the woman’s liability. All the jury was required to do was affix a damages figure. Because of the posture of the case after the second trial, the parties could not have directly appealed the judge’s decision lowering the jury’s verdict.
Among the big bones of contention that are to be addressed on appeal, if one comes to pass, would be Thomas-Rasset’s contention that damages under the Copyright Act are unconstitutionally excessive, even with the reduced verdict. The RIAA claims that judges do not have the power to lower a Copyright Act jury award.
“We disagree with the decision and are considering our next steps,” RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth said.
Thomas-Rasset, who did not immediately respond for comment, famously lost her first trial in 2007 — resulting in a $222,000 judgment. But months after the four-day trial was over, Judge Davis declared a mistrial, saying he add incorrectly instructed the jury that merely making copyrighted work available on a file sharing program constituted infringement, regardless of whether anybody downloaded the content.
Most of the thousands of RIAA file sharing cases against individuals settled out of court for a few thousand dollars. The RIAA has said it has ceased its 5-year campaign of suing individual file sharers and, with the Motion Picture Association of America, have convinced internet service providers to take punitive action against copyright scofflaws, including terminating service.
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