Appeals court sides with RIAA, Jammie Thomas owes $222,000

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacates a lower court's decision and rules that Thomas-Rasset, found by a judge to have lied about illegally uploading music, must pay the top four labels $222,000.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read

The top four record labels have won a significant decision in their long-running suit against Jammie Thomas-Rasset, the Minnesota woman found by a court to have "lied" about illegally uploading music to the Web.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found unanimously in favor of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the trade group for Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and EMI Music:

We conclude that the recording companies are entitled to the remedies that they seek on appeal. The judgment of the district court is vacated, and the case is remanded with directions to enter a judgment for damages in the amount of $222,000, and to include an injunction that precludes Thomas-Rasset from making any of the plaintiffs' recordings available for distribution to the public through an online media distribution system.

Jammie Thomas-Rasset
Jammie Thomas-Rasset Jammie Thomas-Rasset

Attorneys for Thomas-Rasset were not immediately available for comment. We'll update the story as soon as we hear from them. The RIAA issued a brief statement: "We are pleased with the appellate court's decision and look forward to putting this case behind us."

In 2007, the RIAA accused Thomas-Rasset of copyright infringement for sharing 1,700 copyrighted songs -- the equivalent of 150 CDs. But the RIAA whittled down the number to 24. A jury heard the proof against her and rendered a $222,000 verdict against her.

That decision was thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis in Minnesota after he acknowledged erring in his jury instructions. In 2009, Thomas-Rasset's case was retried and again 12 jurors decide against her. This time, however, the jury awarded damages of $80,000 for each of the 24 songs she was accused of sharing for a total of $1.92 million. That award was again thrown out along with the verdict.

Davis lowered the sum to $2,250 per song and that meant Thomas-Rasset, who is from Minnesota, owed the music labels $54,000. The RIAA appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which has now reinstated the original damages award against her.

This is a case that refuses to die, so it's very likely that Thomas-Rasset will continue to fight if she can. Her attorneys have promised to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if need be. In the past, they have argued that the damages award laid down by Congress for copyright infringement was meant to punish organized criminal groups and not individual online file sharers. They argue that the awards amount is cruel and unusual punishment and therefor unconstitutional.

If the case does make it the Supreme Court, the RIAA will take with it multiple favorable jury verdicts and a successful appeal. The trade group had asked for the original jury decision to be reinstated. The labels also wanted the court to grant an injunction against Thomas-Rasset that prevented her from making the copyrighted works available again. The RIAA got most of it wanted from the appeals court.

The court, however, did not make any rulings about whether Judge Davis made the right call by granting Thomas-Rasset a second trial. It called the issue "moot."

The appellate panel wrote that Thomas-Rasset also asked for the first jury decision regarding her liability be reinstated but also requested that the court determine whether that $222,000 damages amount was constitutional. The appeals court declined to make the determination.

"Our response to these tactical maneuvers," wrote the appeals court, "is to observe that this court reviews judgments, not decisions on issues.... We also conclude that statutory damages of at least $222,000 were constitutional, and that the district court erred in holding that the Due Process Clause allowed statutory damages of only $54,000."

Updated at 1:47 p.m. PT to correct misstatement that Jammie Thomas-Rasset acknowledged pirating. A judge concluded that Thomas-Rasset had lied about the possibility that it her boyfriend and children were the ones that illegally uploaded songs to the Web.