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Copyright Law

8th Circuit OKs $222K Award But Avoids Ruling on Key Issue in Historic RIAA File-Sharing Case

Posted Sep 11, 2012 3:52 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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After three jury trials, it appears that the legal saga of the first individual to fight a Recording Industry Association of America demand for payment for illegal downloading of copyrighted music still hasn't come to an end.

In a procedurally complex decision Tuesday, a federal appeals court panel held that the plaintiff recording companies are entitled to the $222,000 in damages that they were awarded against Jammie Thomas-Rasset after the first trial in 2007. However, the panel declined to decide whether a federal district court in Minnesota erred by ordering a new trial after that first verdict.

Instead, noting that the juries in the subsequent two trials both awarded the plaintiffs damages of at least $1.5 million, the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that these subsequent verdicts were "sufficient to justify" the damages now sought by the plaintiffs. It hence declined to decide a key Copyright Act issue arising from the first trial on which the plaintiffs had sought a ruling—and, in order to seek that ruling, had made a tactical choice to ask for reinstatement of the $222,000 verdict rather than the $1.5 million awarded by the jury in the third trial.

That key issue—whether, as the district court ruled, its instructions to the jury in the first trial incorrectly said the Copyright Act prohibits "making available" sound recordings on peer-to-peer Internet file-sharing regardless of whether “actual distribution" has been proved—thus remains undecided.

"Important though the 'making available' legal issue may be to the recording companies, they are not entitled to an opinion on an issue of law that is unnecessary for the remedies sought or to a freestanding decision on whether Thomas-Rasset violated the law by making recordings available," explained the 8th Circuit in its written opinion (PDF).

The RIAA said it was satisfied with the decision, which also remands the case to the district court with instructions to impose a "making available" injunction against Thomas-Rasset that was sought by the plaintiffs. Thomas-Rasset did not object to the injunctive relief, which the 8th Circuit said the trial court had the power to award on other grounds regardless of whether the Copyright Act bans such activity. However, Thomas-Rasset intends to appeal the damages award, according to the Associated Press.

Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis twice cut the seven-figure award against Thomas-Rasset to $54,000 after the second and third jury verdicts. However, he erred by determining that $2,250 was the maximum amount constitutional due process allowed her to be penalized for willful copyright infringement concerning 24 downloaded songs, the 8th Circuit held.

Under the $222,000 damages award, she is required to pay $9,250 per song.

Ars Technica's Law & Disorder blog and Reuters also have stories about the 8th Circuit decision.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "1st Circuit Reinstates Original $675K Award Against Grad Student in Music Download Case"

ABAJournal.com: "Supreme Court Turns Down File-Sharing Appeal Challenging Remittitur Procedure"

Updated on Sept. 14 to link to previous ABAJournal.com post about prior trials.

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