Obama Admin. Urging Appeals Court to Reinstate $1.5 Million File-Sharing Verdict

The Obama administration is putting pressure on a federal appeals court to reinstate a $1.5 million verdict against a Minnesota woman for sharing two dozen songs on Kazaa.

A Minnesota federal judge lowered the verdict to $54,000, ruling that the jury’s award “for stealing 24 songs for personal use is appalling.”

The Copyright Act allows penalties of as much as $150,000 per infringement.

The decision by US District Judge Michael Davis follows the third trial in the Recording Industry Association of America’s lawsuit against Jammie Thomas-Rasset. She is the first file sharer to take an RIAA lawsuit to a jury trial.

Despite the judge’s reduction, Thomas-Rasset appealed the lowered damages verdict, (.pdf) claiming the Copyright Act was unconstitutional because of its large or “excessive” awards. The RIAA on the other hand, claims that judges do not have the power to alter jury awards dealing with copyright infringement.

The Obama administration, which is intervening because the constitutionality of the Copyright Act is at issue, agreed with the RIAA that the act was constitutional.

“The Copyright Act’s statutory damage provision is reasonably related to furthering the public interest in protecting original works of artistic, literary, and musical expression and its constitutionality must therefore be sustained under the applicable, highly deferential standards of judicial review,” the government wrote (.pdf) to the Missouri-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Davis has overturned the judgments of three separate juries in the Thomas-Rasset case dating back to 2007.

The first trial of Thomas-Rasset, of Minnesota, ended with a $222,000 judgment, but Davis declared a mistrial, on the grounds that he’d improperly instructed the jury on a point of law. After the second trial, Davis tentatively reduced the award from $1.92 million to $54,000, and ordered a new trial on damages if the parties didn’t agree to that amount or settle. That third trial ended in the $1.5 million judgement that Davis reduced again.

Judge Davis, the nation’s first judge to reduce the amount of damages in a Copyright Act case, said fairness demanded his decision to reduce the latest award to $2,250 per track.

The RIAA said in a legal filing with the appeals court that Judge Davis’ decision “is fundamentally incompatible both with Plaintiff’s constitutional right to have a jury determine what amount of statutory damages is just, and with the deference due to congressionally authorized awards.”

Most of the thousands of RIAA file sharing cases against individuals settled out of court for a few thousand dollars. The RIAA has ceased its 5-year campaign of suing individual file sharers and, with the Motion Picture Association of America, has convinced internet service providers to take punitive action against copyright scofflaws, including terminating service.

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