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Justice Department defends massive file-swapping fine

In move that echoes Bush administration arguments, Obama Justice Department says Jammie Thomas' $1.92 million fine for infringement of 24 songs is constitutional.

Nearly two years ago, the Bush administration sided with the major record labels in their civil lawsuit against an alleged and briefly famous Kazaa user named Jammie Thomas. Now the Obama administration is doing so as well.

In a legal brief filed Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice said the whopping $1.92 million fine that the Recording Industry Association of America slapped on Thomas was perfectly constitutional.

Federal prosecutors argue the relevant law is "carefully crafted" and consistent with "due process" and part of a necessary "regime to protect intellectual property. Under current law, copyright holders can sue for up to $150,000 per work (such as an MP3 file, DVD, or book).

Their brief adds: "Congress took into account the need to deter the millions of users of new media from infringing copyrights in an environment where many violators believe that they will go unnoticed." It does not take a position on issues other than the constitutional ones.

In the case of Jammie Thomas--now Jammie Thomas-Rasset--a jury decided that she had willfully infringed copyrights on 24 songs and awarded the RIAA a total of $222,000. Her lawyers successfully argued for a new trial, in which the RIAA won $80,000 per song in damages, or a total of $1.92 million.

Now her lawyers are asking for a third trial on grounds that the total fine is unreasonably, and even unconstitutionally, high.

Jammie Thomas Jammie Thomas

Thomas' attorneys' brief filed last month says the up-to-$150,000-per-song statutory damages "bear no reasonable relation to the actual injury suffered by the plaintiffs. The damages awarded are grossly in excess of any reasonable estimate of that injury...An award of statutory damages of $1.92 (million) for 24 songs assessed as punishment, not compensation, shocks the conscience and must be set aside."

The Obama Justice Department's arguments echo the ones made by the Bush Justice Department in a December 2007 brief, which said: "Congress has crafted a statute that serves as a deterrent to those infringing parties who think they will go undetected in committing this great public wrong."

Friday's filing wasn't exactly unexpected; for one thing, the Justice Department is generally tasked with defending acts of Congress from legal challenges. It sided with the RIAA in a recent Massachusetts case, and in an unrelated peer-to-peer case in New York.

The RIAA has said it's willing to settle its Minnesota case against Thomas for far less than the seven-figure sum it's now owed. "It was a jury of regular folks who rendered this decision," Jonathan Lamy, a spokesperson for the RIAA, said in June. "We do not seek any specific damage awards. For the few existing cases, this verdict is a reminder of the clarity of the law. With any case, including that of Ms. Thomas-Rasset, we seek to settle these out of court. We stand ready and willing to talk settlement with Ms. Thomas-Rasset or anyone. We think that's most beneficial for everyone involved."

One of the RIAA attorneys in the Thomas case was Donald Verrilli of Jenner and Block in Washington, D.C. In February, Obama named Verrilli to a senior Justice Department post as associate deputy attorney general.