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Justice Department sides with RIAA against Jammie Thomas

Bush administration is defending as perfectly constitutional the $222,000 in penalties she must pay for sharing 24 songs.

The Bush administration has officially entered the file-sharing lawsuit pitting the major record labels against a Minnesota woman named Jammie Thomas. And it's siding with the record labels.

In legal documents filed in federal court in Minnesota on Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice said it wants to defend the constitutionality of the copyright law that a jury decided Thomas violated.

"Copyrights are of great value, not just to their owners, but to the American public as well," the Justice Department's brief said. "Congress has recognized this value from the first days of the republic. The federal copyright statute...has consistently included special provisions to ensure significant monetary awards in copyright infringement suits that will make copyright owners whole and deter further infringement. "

Translation: It was perfectly reasonable for a jury to slap Thomas with a $222,000 penalty for making 24 songs available on Kazaa.

The Justice Department's move is not exactly unexpected. The department is charged with defending the constitutionality of statutes that Congress enacts, even ones (like the Communications Decency Act) that are unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny. In addition, as I noted in October, the Justice Department has already sided with the RIAA in a New York file-sharing case.

Thomas' argument seems to be this: Fining someone $222,000--and in fact the damages could have been far higher--for sharing songs that could be bought for $24 on iTunes is oppressive and objectively unreasonable. It therefore necessarily violates Supreme Court precedent, which prohibits fines that are "so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportioned to the offense or obviously unreasonable."

Here are two more excerpts from the Justice Department's brief, which echoes the Recording Industry Association of America's own arguments:

Although defendant claims that plaintiffs' damages are 70 cents per infringing copy, it is unknown how many other users--"potentially millions"--committed subsequent acts of infringement with the illegal copies of works that the defendant infringed. Accordingly, it is impossible to calculate the damages caused by a single infringement, particularly for infringement that occurs over the Internet. Furthermore, plaintiffs contend that their witnesses "testified to the substantial harm caused by the massive distribution of their copyrighted sound recordings over the Internet, including lost revenues, layoffs, and a diminished capability to identify and promote new talent..."

Most recently, 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, as well as providing compensation to copyright owners who have to invest resources into protecting property that is often unquantifiable. Accordingly, given the findings of copyright infringement in this case, the damages awarded under the Copyright Act's statutory damages provision did not violate the due process clause...