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US courts reinstate original ruling in Jammie Thomas case

By | Published on Wednesday 12 September 2012

Jammie Thomas

I’m almost starting to get nostalgic about the early days of P2P file-sharing. I mean, downloading a five megabyte MP3 on dial-up took sixteen minutes; these were the days of the patient teen file-sharer. And don’t forget the increasingly frustrated phone-bill paying parent; these were the days of the persistent teen file-sharer.

And remember how the major record companies were convinced that expensive DRM software bought from companies with names like Digital Protection Utilities Corporation Inc were the solution? If backed up by even more expensive litigation against the file-sharing kids, led by eager legal beagles excited that they would be first to profit from the digital music revolution. They were simpler days. They were happier days. They were shit days.

I’m feeling nostalgic for the Kazaa era because one of those early-doors P2P stories that just won’t go away is back in the headlines. And the judge overseeing this particular file-sharing lawsuit is clearly harbouring back to simpler times too, reinstating the original damages sum handed down by a US court way back in 2007.

Yes, Jammie Thomas – one of the few file-sharers sued by the Recording Industry Association Of America to let her case get to court – has been ordered to pay the record companies $222,000 in damages, the figure originally set in 2007. Which is good news in that it’s somewhat less than the $1.9 million another court ordered her to pay. But bad news in that it’s somewhat more than the $54,000 damages another court said was more reasonable. And Team Thomas weren’t even happy with that.

So let’s recap. File-sharing went on chez Thomas circa 2005. The RIAA sued. Thomas refused to settle. A court found her guilty of copyright infringement for illegally sharing 24 songs, and ordered her to pay damages of $220,000. But then the judge decided an error had been made in the trial. So a second hearing took place, where the same verdict was reached, but damages were set by a jury at $1.92 million. But then a judge ruled that was a loony tunes amount, and revised damages down to $54,000.

The RIAA offered to do a deal with Team Thomas around that figure, but the file-sharer’s legal reps, sensing they were on a roll, refused. So the record industry appealed, a jury was again consulted, and they set damages at $1.5 million. Again a judge deemed that figure pie in the sky, and reset the damages figure back to $54,000. But the RIAA appealed again, and yesterday won, in that a panel of three judges ruled the original $220,000 was the most appropriate damages figure that this single mother of limited means should pay the labels for a bit of sneaky file sharing seven years ago. Good times.

As previously reported, the size of the damages to be paid can vary so radically because of US copyright law, which allows the courts to order damages of anywhere between $750 and $150,000 per infringement. And because many file-sharers shared hundreds of tracks illegally, if a per-infringement figure towards the end of that bracket is selected, you can quickly be talking silly money damages (and pretty silly money damages even if, as they usually do, rights owners only list a small number of infringements in their actual litigation).

The judge who overruled the $1.5 million figure last year called that level of damages “outrageously high” and “appalling” given what Thomas was guilty of, and the tangible loss the labels suffered as a direct result of her (or her family’s) file-sharing. Thomas’s legal team hoped to capitalise on that sentiment when the RIAA appealed.

In part, they pointed out that damages of $222,000 worked out at over $9000 per infringement, and had the RIAA listed 1000 tracks in its lawsuit (the trade body has informally accused Thomas of file-sharing significantly more than that), then the total damages figure would be over $9 million, which would clearly be insane.

But Judge Steven Colloton, speaking for the appeals panel that considered the case this week, said that if a lawsuit listing that many tracks came to court, then that would be something to consider at that point. But in the meantime, $222,000 in damages was not “so severe and oppressive” as to cause constitutional concerns.

Needless to say, the RIAA welcomed the ruling, telling reporters: “We look forward to putting this case behind us”. Though it shouldn’t get too excited just yet, as Team Thomas, who told Reuters that the┬ádamages award was “punitive” and out-of-line with the US Supreme Court’s rulings, plan to appeal again. Meaning that, as with the other big outstanding file-sharer case still rumbling its way through the US courts, that involving Joel Tenenbaum, while the RIAA has had some victories of late, this story ain’t finished yet.

Which is good news for those of us that like to get nostalgic about that heady, crazy days of spending three hours downloading an Nsync album, wondering whether the RIAA lawsuit would arrive before the malware Kazaa had just installed on your machine killed your computer.