Post authored by Communications Intern Olivia Brown.
In a decision that echoes their refusal to hear Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum last summer, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear Capitol v. Thomas last week. This case may represent the closing chapter of the RIAA’s lawsuits against individual file-sharers.
Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesotan mother of four, has been embroiled in a legal battle with the RIAA and several record labels for the past eight years. While the case hasn’t dragged on quite as long as Joel Tenenbaum’s decade-long suit, SCOTUS’ refusal to hear it marks the latest in a long line of failed appeals for Thomas-Rasset.
Thomas-Rasset’s legal troubles began in August 2005, when the RIAA sent her a cease-and-desist letter after determining that she had infringed on copyrights by sharing and downloading songs on the now-defunct peer-to-peer file sharing service Kazaa. After Thomas-Rasset (then Thomas) refused to settle, she was sued by a number of record labels seeking statutory damages for 24 out of 1,702 tracks that she allegedly shared via Kazaa. Thomas-Rasset denied the allegations.
During the initial trial, held in October 2007 in the U.S. District Court for Minnesota, the jury found Thomas-Rasset guilty of willful infringement and ruled that she would have to pay $9,250 per song ($222,000 total) in statutory damages. A series of retrials and a remittitur followed, extending the case into 2011 and taking the statutory damages award on a roller coaster ride ranging from a jaw-dropping $1,920,000 ($80,000 per song, awarded following a second trial ordered due to a possible conflict with an old precedent in the first trial’s verdict) to a low of $54,000 ($2,250 per song, awarded after the damages were adjusted to a “constitutional maximum”), and then eventually back to the original award of $222,000 in September of 2012.
Thomas-Rasset asked the Supreme Court to review the case following the final reversion to the initial judgment. Her appeal for certiorari was denied this week.
Regardless of the economic impacts of unauthorized downloading, there aren’t many people who would consider $1,920,000 to be a sensible or fair charge for nabbing 24 songs. In iTunes numbers, those damages would cover the cost of nearly two million downloads.
As far back as 2008, even the RIAA were changing their tune when it came to lawsuits as an effective tool in the fight against unauthorized file sharing. According to the Wall Street Journal, the trade organiation instead talked of shifting efforts towards collaboration with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to identify customers suspected of engaging in unlawful file sharing, ask them to stop, and then, if their behavior continued, throttle their internet connection (which is essentially the idea behind the newly instated Copyright Alert System.)
Despite a general shift in approach, the RIAA hasn’t dropped suits like Thomas-Rasset’s and Joel Tenenbaum’s — two of the small number of cases that were not settled out of court. But if the RIAA really wants to change the way that they go about combatting file sharing, why not clear the slate?
Unfortunately, lawsuits like these have only served to polarize the debates about digital music economics. Many consumers have come to view record companies as villains bent on extorting grandmas, failing to differentiate between the RIAA and the many hundreds of independent labels that never had anything to do with suing individuals. This has allowed the focus to shift from the real task of assessing the impact of piracy as a whole — not just on the major labels – and establishing legal, licensed alternatives. We hope that the end of this lawsuit era allows for the emergence of a sensible middle ground that doesn’t prescribe astronomical statutory damages or target end-users, but also doesn’t minimize the potentially damaging impact of unauthorized file-sharing and the need for some kind of enforcement mechanisms.