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File-sharing mom begs US Supremes to void bloated RIAA fine

Would Founding Fathers approve of $9,250 per track?

Jammie Thomas-Rasset, the Minnesota mother of four facing a $220,000 fine for illegally downloading and sharing 24 songs, has petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear her case.

Thomas-Rasset's lawyers have filed a petition for certiorari (from the Latin verb 'to show') that asks the court to review the charges of $9,250 per MP3 and decide if they are constitutionally excessive. Her legal team argues that the current system is grossly unfair and their client is being pursued not for her specific transgressions or any damages actually caused, but in an attempt to deter others and enforce punitive fees.

"This is not just. It is unfair, it is not due process, for an industry to sue 12,500 people and threaten to sue 5,000 more, wielding a statute for which they lobbied, under which they can threaten hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in statutory damages, where the only way to resist is through modern, complex, expensive federal process, so that the only reasonable choice is to pay the settlement and be done. That's extortion, not law," the brief states.

So far the US Supreme court has refused to hear cases on file sharing, most recently declining to take up the case of Joel Tenenbaum who is facing a $675,000 fine for downloading 30 songs when he was 16. But Thomas-Rasset and her pro-bono legal team aren't the sorts to give up their fight.

Thomas-Rasset lost her file-sharing case back in 2007, when she was found guilty of sharing songs on the Kazaa peer-to-peer system. The jury spent minutes finding her guilty and imposed the $220,000 fine, which realistically Rasset had no way of paying. She lost her appeal, but the presiding judge had a change of heart and ordered a retrial.

This wasn't the good news Thomas-Rasset might have hoped for. In 2009, the court increased the award against her to $1.92m, or $80,000 per track, which even embarrassed the Recording Industry Ass. of America, which had instigated the case, prompting them to offer to settle the case for a $25,000 donated to charity. Thomas-Rasset refused, and the appeal against her verdict cut her fine to $54,000 – but she decided to fight on.

At her third trial in 2010, the jury increased her fine to $1.5m for sharing those 24 songs, but this was cut back down to $54,000 on appeal. After recontesting her case, the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled that the original $220,000 ruling should stand.

Now the Supreme Court is being asked to rule on the issue. It's unlikely to, but based on Thomas-Rasset's past form, she'll keep on fighting to the end anyway. ®

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