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Thomas ordered to pay $1.5 million to RIAA, she says she can’t

By | Published on Friday 5 November 2010

Jammie Thomas won’t pay because she can’t pay. That was the message delivered by the famous file-sharer earlier this week, and pretty much her line ever since she was first found guilty of copyright infringement for sharing 24 songs on Kazaa back in 2007. It’s a fair argument, though the Recording Industry Association Of America might argue that Thomas could have realistically committed to paying $25,000 – over a period of time – and she should have accepted that out of court settlement offer when it was made earlier this year.

As much previously reported, Thomas was one of the thousands of people sued by the RIAA for file-sharing. She chose to fight her case in court, but lost twice, so much so her liability for infringement is no longer doubted, in the eyes of the law at least. The question still to be answered, though, is how much in damages she should pay. As also previously reported, US copyright law allows a rather crazy level of flexibility for judges and jurors considering infringement damages, able to charge anyway between $750 and $150,000 per infringement.

In the first trial Jammie was ordered to pay $9,250 per song, or $222,000 in total, which seemed an awful lot at the time until the judge hearing the case decided there were errors in the first trial and called in a second jury, who awarded the record industry $1.92 million in damages. But Judge Michael Davis was on Jammie’s side, saying that level of damages was totally inappropriate for the sharing of 24 songs on the internet. At the start of the year he cut the payment due down to size big time, setting the figure the file-sharer must pay at $54,000. 

The RIAA, while rejecting Davis’s damages ruling, had an unusual moment of common sense. Clearly wanting out of the case, it offered Thomas a $25,000 out of court settlement, even promising to give the cash to a charity for struggling musicians. But Jammie, possibly feeling things were going her way, refused to pay either 54 or 25 grand, and let the RIAA go ahead with its appeal against Davis’s January ruling.

That case came to court this week. A new jury was signed in, this time only to consider what damages Jammie must pay. And what level of damages did they opt for? Not quite the unfeasibly high figure set in the second trial, but not far off – $62,500 per infringement, $1.5 million over all. That 25 grand is looking like pocket money now.

As we said, Thomas, reasonably really, maintains that she’d never be able to afford to pay damages on that level in her entire life, telling reporters yesterday: “I can’t afford to pay any amount. It’s not a matter of won’t, it’s a matter of ‘I can’t’. Any amount that I pay to them is money that I could use to feed my children. Any amount that I pay to them is money I could use to clothe my kids, and pay my mortgage so my kids have a place to sleep”. Think of the children people, think of the children.

Her attorney added that the law that allows juries to award damages of up to $150,000 per copyright infringement is “unconstitutional” and amounts to “legalised extortion”. Even damages calculated at the lowest rate the law allows, $750 per infringement, is, he argues, way out of line with what the record companies really deserve. In fact, he goes as far as to argue the labels are only really due the $24 they’d have got had Jammie bought her songs via iTunes rather than downloaded them via Kazaa, which possibly takes things to the other extreme.

The RIAA, obviously, welcomed the latest damages ruling in the ongoing Thomas case. Of course, Davis could now slash the new damages figure once again, but the record industry trade body is sure to argue that, with three juries having now awarded six figure plus damages, it would wrong for the judge to meddle. Meanwhile, Thomas seems likely to appeal.