Severe fine imposed for sharing 24 music files

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Updated, Sept. 18, 9:38 a.m.

A Minnesota woman accused of distributing music via the Kazaa file-sharing site has been fined $222,000 in the first music copyright infringement case to reach a jury.

After being found guilty in November 2007 of willful copyright infringement for sharing 24 tunes on the P2P network, Jammie Thomas-Rasset was assessed damages at $222,000.

Following five years of appeals through lower courts, a jury of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of plaintiffs Capitol Records, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Arista Records, Interscope Records, Warner Bros. Records and UMG Recordings – which originally brought suit.

The mother of four was accused of swapping out her hard drive when forensic investigators hired by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) first approached her in 2005. She initially denied knowing anything about Kazaa, but the fact that while in college she'd authored a case study on the legality of Napster – another file-sharing site – hurt her case.

After she rejected a $4,500 settlement offer, the case wound its way through the courts in appeal, with the fine to be levied at one point being cited as high as $9.25 million, a figure based on the RIAA's initial claim that she should pay $9,250 for each of the 1,700 songs she was eventually accused of sharing.

As the case dragged on, various settlements were proposed and rejected. Some of the record companies involved also wished to settle as legal fees were mounting for them as well. Industry experts say the RIAA backed down in its claim for damages for fear of a public relations backlash.

"It appears there was some temptation by the original court about the amount to award in this case," Art Bowker, a cybercrime specialist in corrections and author of The Cybercrime Handbook for Community Corrections, told SCMagazine on Tuesday. "The Eighth Circuit, though, gave clear direction about these amounts. Considering the amount awarded in this case, who would seriously want to be involved in making copyrighted songs available on any peer-to-peer network. Even the 'casual' user has got to think twice about this kind of civil penalty."

Additionally, Bowker said he found it interesting that the Eighth Circuit noted it was within the court's power to issue injunction relief against the defendant from making sound recordings available for distribution on the internet. "That just makes sense," he said. "I would imagine that seeking  injunctions that restrict civil defendants from future illegal internet activity will become a powerful tool for companies trying to protect their online property interests."

How far these restrictive injunctions go in the future will likely be tied to the level of the defendant's egregious conduct, he added.

Thomas-Rasset's case is now expected to be appealed further to the Supreme Court.

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