Jury: Brainerd woman owes record firms $1.92 million

This article was published on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune 6/19/2009. I broke this news, which was later picked up by national publications and the BBC.

A 32-year-old woman from Brainerd, Minn., owes $1.92 million in damages to recording companies for downloading their music, a federal jury in Minneapolis decided Thursday.

That amounts to $80,000 a song for the 24 songs Jammie Thomas-Rasset was accused of downloading.

The damages are eight times more than Thomas-Rasset, a mother of four, was ordered to pay the first time she faced six record companies in court on claims that she downloaded more than 1,700 songs. The judge granted a retrial after deciding that he had wrongly instructed the jury.

“The only thing I can say is, ‘Good luck getting it from me,'” said Thomas-Rasset, who looked tearful immediately after hearing of the decision, but then appeared resolute.

Of the more than 30,000 suits brought by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against alleged file-sharers, Thomas-Rasset’s is the only one to go to a jury trial, let alone two. For that reason, the case has received international attention.

While observers dispute the significance of the verdict, the recording industry saw a decisive victory in its battle against music-loving downloaders.

The industry claims file-sharers are to blame for a $6 billion loss in revenue in the past few years.

“We appreciate the jury’s service and that they take this as seriously as we do,” said Cara Duckworth, spokeswoman for the recording association. “Since Day 1 we have been willing to settle this case, and we remain willing to do so,” she said, without specifying the terms under which the association might be willing to settle.

The jury took less than five hours to come to a decision, but the case itself has taken three years.

The industry group sued Thomas-Rasset, then a single mother of two, in 2006. In December 2007, a federal jury in Duluth found her liable for up to $220,000 for copyright infringement of the 24 songs the industry group focused on — $9,250 per song.

But U.S. District Judge Michael Davis granted a retrial because he said he gave the jurors the wrong instructions. He had instructed the jury that the “act of making copyrighted sound recordings available” violates the copyright “regardless of whether actual distribution has been shown.” Thursday’s instructions stressed that it is infringement to either reproduce or distribute copyrighted material, but that making something available does not constitute distribution.

“This is a battle won for the RIAA, but not the end of the war,” said defense attorney Kiwi Camara, adding that the case won’t directly affect others because jury trials don’t set legal precedents.

Camara said the defense is contemplating seeking a settlement and/or appealing the verdict.

Different trial, similar ending

To come to its decision, the jury considered evidence that included screen shots of the online file-sharing network Kazaa, CDs with downloaded and legitimate music, and lists of Thomas-Rasset’s personal CD collection.

During closing arguments, Timothy Reynolds, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, told the jury that Thomas-Rasset gave copyrighted material to “millions on the Internet” through Kazaa.

One of Thomas-Rasset’s defense attorneys argued that she didn’t download anything. “There was better evidence brought against prospective jurors than there was against the defendant in this case,” said attorney Joe Sibley, referring to instances when potential jurors admitted to illegally sharing music.

Thomas-Rasset testified that she hadn’t even heard of Kazaa before the case. She said her children or ex-boyfriend could have downloaded songs without her knowledge. But the jury didn’t buy it.

Contested significance

Thursday’s $1.9 million verdict is the largest win for the recording industry in its litigation campaign against file-sharers, but authorities on media convergence and copyright law disagree about its significance.

Late last year, the industry ended the controversial campaign under which it had sued about 35,000 people, including Thomas, since 2003 for illegally downloading or sharing songs over the Internet. Instead, it is working with several major Internet service providers to address the issue. Industry officials also said the lawsuits educated the music-downloading public and statistics appear to indicate they slowed the increase in illegal file sharers, although other experts suggest illegal sharing is rising again.

The fallout from Thursday’s verdict also might pose problems for the victors, said Ben Sheffner, a copyright lawyer who has represented music studios and record companies.

While deterring potential file-sharers, the jury’s decision could have unintended public relations, legal and political implications for the Recording Industry group, Sheffner said.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune columnist and author of “Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music,” said the verdict could hurt the recording industry more than help it. “I really think that punitive measures like this one, and the fact that this verdict is so eye-poppingly out of step with anybody’s conception of what these songs might be worth, is only going to increase the ill will toward the record industry that has accrued over the last decade,” he said.

Either way, the verdict hasn’t changed Thomas-Rasset’s response: For the second time in three years, surrounded by reporters after a crushing loss, she wished the recording companies good luck collecting their money.

“You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip,” she said.

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