First P2P file-sharing jury trial in the US: Damages of US$220,000 reinstated

Since our post on Ms Thomas-Rasset’s case back in 2009 (Capitol Records Inc v Thomas-Rasset) here, the amount in damages that she has been ordered to pay to the major music labels for copyright infringement has changed several times. In the first instance she had been ordered to pay USD$220,000 but the verdict was annulled and a retrial was ordered on the basis the jury had been given faulty instructions.

Following the second jury’s award of damages against her in the amount of USD$1.92m at the retrial, Ms Thomas-Rasset filed a motion to reduce or throw out the amount ordered by the jury, and she successfully had the amount reduced to USD$54,000 on the basis that the amount of USD$1.92m was shocking and unjust.

The record labels then opted for a new trial instead of accepting that lower amount (which they are entitled to do under US law).

At the new trial, the third jury awarded damages against Ms Thomas-Rasset in the amount of USD$1.5m, however the district court reduced the amount to USD$54,000. This was on the basis that Ms Thomas-Rasset successfully argued that the amount of USD$1.5m was unconstitutional and violated her Fifth Amendment right because the record labels had not proven that she had caused them actual harm by using a P2P file sharing network to share the 24 sound recordings in question, only

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that file sharing generally had caused them harm.

Unsatisfied, the record labels appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking reinstatement of the first jury award of damages in the amount of USD$222,000. On 11 September 2012 the appeal was upheld and the district court’s decision was reversed. The award of damages in the amount of USD$222,000 against Ms Thomas-Rasset was reinstated.

At this time it appears that Ms Thomas-Rasset will be appealing this decision to the Supreme Court. Stay tuned for further updates.

This is clearly a case that is being hard fought on both sides given that the original cease and desist letter was sent to Ms Thomas-Rasset in 2005, the first trial was in 2007 and the matter is ongoing. Ms Thomas-Rasset also appears to have rejected settlement offers from the record labels along the way, notwithstanding she is now represented on a pro-bono basis.

The protracted legal battle shows how fiercely the record labels will fight to protect their IP rights in the digital age. In the current online environment, the record labels are clearly of the opinion that it is not enough for their rights to be nominally upheld in a court, but that a judgment against an individual infringer, even a non-commercial infringer, must be punitive if it is to serve as a deterrent to other copyright infringers.

Sophia Finter and Tom Davies