What's the value of a song? Jammie Thomas-Rasset has spent the last few years in court debating that question. The Minnesota mother of four is being penalized for illegally downloading and sharing 24 songs on the peer-to-peer file-sharing network Kazaa in 2006, but how much she owes the record labels has been in question. The jury in her third trial has just ruled that Thomas-Rasset should pay Capitol Records $1.5 million, CNET reports, which breaks down to $62,500 per song. It's a heavy penalty considering the 24 tunes would only cost approximately $24 on iTunes, which was Thomas-Rasset' argument, too.
Thanks to Thomas-Rasset's colorful case, she has become the public face of the record industry's battle with illegal downloaders. In her first trial, in 2007, the jury demanded she pay $222,000 for violating the copyright on more than 1,700 songs by Green Day, Aerosmith and Richard Marx, to name a few. (Marx said he was "ashamed" to be associated with the "farcical" prosecution of an illegal downloader.) Thomas-Rasset maintained she wasn't the computer user who did the file sharing, and her legal team cited an error in jury instruction to secure a second trial in 2009 that ended with a much harsher result: an astronomical fine of $1.92 million. However, earlier this year a U.S. District Court judge found the $1.92 million penalty against Thomas-Rasset to be "monstrous and shocking" and "gross injustice" before lowering it to $54,000, or $2,250 a song. Thomas-Rasset and her legal team decided to appeal that decision, too.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the organization that represents the four major record labels, was pleased by the most recent decision, even if it has no intention to collect the $1.5 million from Thomas-Rasset. "Now with three jury decisions behind us along with a clear affirmation of Ms. Thomas-Rasset's willful liability, it is our hope that she finally accepts responsibility for her actions," the RIAA said in a statement. Earlier this year, the RIAA offered Thomas-Rasset the opportunity to end the legal battle for $25,000 and an admission of guilt; Thomas-Rasset declined.
Burying a Midwestern mom in insurmountable debt isn't the best publicity move, so rather than argue the labels are entitled to the cash, the RIAA has sought to make this trial into a cautionary tale for anyone considering illegally downloading music -- a reminder that there are penalties. But as the constantly declining weekly Nielsen SoundScan sales figures demonstrate, nothing seems to have deterred music fans from stealing rather than purchasing songs and albums. And in a digital world now dominated by Bit Torrent and Rapidshare, a trial over a music-sharing dinosaur like Kazaa seems nothing but antiquated. (Last month, after a decade of illegal file sharing, peer-to-peer service LimeWire was shut down by the government, much to the surprise of the millions who thought LimeWire had faded years ago into the Internet ether.)
Still, Thomas-Rasset and her legal team are already making plans to appeal, setting the stage for a fourth trial. "The fight continues," promised Thomas-Rasset's lawyer Kiwi Camara. Even if Thomas-Rasset were to win the next trial, the RIAA would likely appeal that decision to ensure that copyright infringement without penalization won't happen. This story has the potential to drag on well into the next decade -- when for $1.5 million, all of Thomas-Rasset's four kids could finish law school and take up the fight on her behalf.