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Eighth Circuit Approves Damages Against Individual Music Downloader

Addressing the issue of the due process clause’s interaction with statutory damages under the Copyright Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ordered a private music downloader to pay $9,250 per downloaded song for a total of $222,000 in statutory damages.  Capitol Records, Inc., et al., v. Thomas-Rasset, Case Nos. 11-2820, -2858 (8th Cir., Sept. 11, 2012) (Colloton, J.).

In 2005, six recording companies undertook an investigation of suspected infringement of their copyrighted music.  The recording studios identified Jammie Thomas-Rasset as an unauthorized downloader utilizing KaZaA to share music.  After settlement negotiations failed, the recording companies sued Thomas-Rasset seeking statutory damages and injunctive relief for willful copyright infringement.  They alleged that Thomas-Rasset violated their exclusive right to reproduction and distribution under the Copyright Act by impermissibly downloading, distributing and making available for distribution 24 copyrighted songs.

The first jury found Thomas-Rasset liable for willful infringement and awarded the recording companies statutory damages of $9,250 per work, a total of $222,000.  Thomas-Rasset moved for a new trial arguing that the amount of the statutory damages award violated her due process rights.  At the second trial the jury again found Thomas-Rasset liable and awarded statutory damages of $80,000 per work, a total of $1,920,000.  Post-trial, Thomas-Rasset argued that any amount of statutory damages was unconstitutional.  The court declined to rule on the constitutionality issue and remitted the damages to $2,250 per work, a total of $54,000.  The recording companies declined the remitted award and exercised their right for a new trial.  The third jury awarded $62,500 in statutory damages per work, for a total of $1,500,000.  The court again reduced the award to $2,250 per work, ruling that this was the maximum allowed under the due process clause.  The court also entered a permanent injunction against Thomas-Rasset, but refused to include language enjoining her from “making available” copyrighted works for distribution to the public.

The recording companies appealed the limitation of statutory damages to $2,250 per infringed work.  The recording companies asked the 8th Circuit to reinstate the original $222,000 damages award and remand with instructions to enter an injunction prohibiting Thomas-Rasset from making the copyrighted works available to the public.  Thomas-Rasset cross-appealed, arguing that even an award of the minimum statutory damages authorized by the Copyright Act would be unconstitutional as against her.

The 8th Circuit held that the first jury’s statutory damages award of $9,250 per work did not contravene the due process clause, noting that statutory damages only violate due process if they are “so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportionate to the offense and obviously unreasonable.”  The court noted that with the advancements in technology, copyright infringement through online file-sharing has become a serious problem for the recording industry.  The court went on to note that Congress was “no doubt” aware of file-sharing when it revised the statutory awards authorized by the Copyright Act in 1999.  The court rejected Thomas-Rasset’s argument that as an individual consumer illegally seeking free access to music for her own use, any award against her would be oppressive.  The court similarly rejected Thomas-Rasset’s argument that the damages award was not based on any evidence of harm caused by her specific infringement.  The court found that the damages award is “imposed as a punishment for the violation of a public law” and does not require a comparison to the actual damages caused by the violation.

Lastly, the Court remanded the case with directions to enter an injunction that forbids Thomas-Rasset from making any of the plaintiffs’ recordings available for distribution to the public through an online media distribution system.

© 2020 McDermott Will & EmeryNational Law Review, Volume II, Number 307


About this Author

Melissa Nott Davis, McDermott Will Law Firm, Intellectual Property Attorney

Melissa Nott Davis is a partner in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and is based in the Firm’s Boston office.