Capitol Records v. Thomas-Rasset: Court Reduces $1.92 Million File-Sharing Jury Award to $54,000

Copyright Patent

apitol Records Inc. v. Thomas-Rasset, No. 06-1497 (D. Minn. Jan. 22, 2010)


In June 2009 a jury returned a verdict against Defendant Jamie Thomas-Rasset after finding that she willfully infringed the copyrights of twenty-four songs by making them available through a file-sharing program.  The jury awarded Plaintiffs statutory damages of $80,000 for each willful infringement, resulting in a total verdict of $1.92 million.  On January 22, 2010, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael Davis for the District of Minnesota remitted the jury award by 97% to $54,000 ($2,250 per song), three times the statutory minimum, noting that even this reduced award remains “significant and harsh” and finding that it sufficiently serves both the deterrent and the compensatory purposes of statutory damages.

JOLT Digest previously covered the Thomas-Rasset case.  ArsTechnica and Wired report on Judge Davis’ order.  Copyrights and Campaigns comments on the decision and provides continuing coverage of the updates in the case.

Judge Davis first held that he has the power to remit an award of statutory damages.  He rejected the Plaintiffs’ argument that the United States Supreme Court decision in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures TV, 523 U.S. 340 (U.S. 1998), restricts the authority to set the amount of statutory damages within the statutory range to the jury, noting that the Plaintiffs’ assertion that the court has no power to remit an award of statutory damages was unsupported by authority.

In the Order, Judge Davis reviewed the history of Thomas-Rasset’s testimony.  She had acknowledged that she was aware that downloading and distributing songs via file-sharing software was illegal.  However, Judge Davis noted that at trial, she refused to accept responsibility for downloading and distributing the infringing sound recordings, instead changing her testimony to implicate her children and ex-boyfriend as the possible infringers.  Judge Davis said that her actions and dishonest testimony raised the need for strong deterrence.  He acknowledged that Plaintiffs were not required to prove actual damages because they had sought only statutory damages, but said that statutory damages must still bear some relation to the actual damages suffered.  He also recognized the difficulty in quantifying damages caused directly and indirectly by Thomas-Rasset’s file-sharing, the large amounts of damages caused by illegal file-sharing in the aggregate, and the Defendant’s impediments to identifying and pursuing infringers.

Nevertheless, Judge Davis held that the facts of the case could not justify the “shocking” $1.95 million award.  He emphasized that Thomas-Rasset was not a business acting for profit, but rather an individual consumer illegally seeking access to music for her own use and said that the need for deterrence could not justify this “unjust” award.  Judge Davis declined, however, to remit the statutory damages award to the statutory minimum of $750 per song, as requested by Thomas-Rasset.  He concluded instead that an award of $2,250 per song, or three times the statutory minimum, was appropriate, in part relying on a “broad legal practice” of establishing a treble award as the upper limit appropriate for willful or particularly damaging behavior.  Judge Davis declined to address the Defendant’s challenge of the constitutionality of the jury’s damages award, finding the remittitur of the jury award to be a sufficient alternative ground for deciding the case.

Judge Davis noted that under the Seventh Amendment, Plaintiffs have the option of rejecting the remittitur order and proceeding to a new jury trial solely on the issue of damages.  As reported by Copyrights and Campaigns, Plaintiffs have since offered to settle the case for a $25,000 donation by Thomas-Rasset to a charity benefiting musicians and vacatur of Judge Davis’ order.  Thomas-Rasset has reportedly rejected the offer, and the Plaintiffs have until February 8, 2010, to decide whether they will accept the reduced award or proceed to a new trial on damages.