A federal judge on Friday reduced the damages a 32-year-old Brainerd, Minn., woman has to pay for downloading music from the Internet. U.S. Chief Judge Michael J. Davis slashed the award for record companies from a whopping $1.9 million to a total of $54,000 -- or $2,250 per song.
"The need for deterrence cannot justify a $2 million verdict for stealing and illegally distributing 24 songs for the sole purpose of obtaining free music," Davis said in the opinion of the court.
But the reduced award, which is still three times the statutory minimum, "is significant and harsh ... this Court has merely reduced that award to the maximum amount that is no longer monstrous and shocking," Davis said.
The case dates to April 2006 when recording companies filed a complaint against Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a mother of four, alleging that she illegally downloaded and distributed copyrighted songs through the online peer-to-peer file-sharing application Kazaa. The jury found Thomas-Rasset guilty of copyright infringement of all 24 songs with damages totaling $220,000, but when she filed a motion for a new trial, things only got worse.
In June 2009, the jury returned the verdict, this time slapping her with $1.9 million in damages, or $80,000 per song -- eight times worse than the previous verdict. She filed a motion for a new trial or a reduction of the "shocking and excessive" damages, according to the opinion.
On Friday, Thomas-Rasset received what she considered a better, but not final, decision.
"Any reduction is obviously a good thing ... but we're still going to appeal it," she said in a phone interview. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't have $50,000 to hand over. But I'm not going to worry about that until everything is set in stone."
Thomas-Rasset has insisted from the beginning that she is innocent and said earlier that she never had heard of the online file-sharing networks that lawyers say she used.
But in his ruling Davis noted that Thomas-Rasset did indeed act willfully and should bear the blame. Davis said that her "refusal to accept responsibility for her actions, and her decision to concoct a new theory of the infringement casting possible blame on her children and ex-boyfriend for her actions demonstrate a refusal to accept responsibility and raise the need for strong deterrence."
But no matter how much Thomas-Rasset is to blame, a $2-million verdict is simply not just, Davis said.
"Thomas-Rasset was not a business acting for profit," Davis said. "Instead, she was an individual consumer illegally seeking free access to music for her own use."
Carolyn Mann is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.