Miami Cyber Crime Criminal Defense Attorney on the RIAA Case Against Jammie Thomas-Rasset

June 22, 2009 by David S. Seltzer

A federal jury in Minnesota has ordered a woman there to pay nearly $2 million to major music labels for illegally offering songs for download, the Associated Press reported June 19. Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a mother of four from Brainerd, Minn., was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for willfully violating copyrights on 24 songs that were made available for download online. She was one of more than 30,000 people who faced these lawsuits, and became an Internet celebrity because she was one of the few who fought the lawsuit rather than settling for a small amount of money.

This was actually the second trial against Thomas-Rasset. Her first trial which awarded the RIAA $222,000, was thrown out because the judge believed he’d made an error with jury instructions. Court testimony in the new case said an online security company hired by the RIAA, MediaSentry, downloaded songs from Thomas-Rasset’s computer, although the RIAA could not prove that the songs were illegally downloaded by anyone else, or that she was the person who had made the songs available. In fact, she testified in court that her children or ex-husband may have shared the songs. Nonetheless, the jury decided she should pay $80,000 per song, nearly $2 million, to major music companies owned by Warner Music Group, Sony, EMI and Vivendi Universal.

As a Fort Lauderdale cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I can’t help but notice that the penalty Thomas-Rasset is facing is hugely disproportionate to her alleged actions. My work produces intellectual property, so I’m sympathetic to the idea that intellectual property should be paid for -- but $80,000 is an absurd price for an individual song. The size of the judgment could also be seen as a deterrent, but given that Thomas-Rasset is a single mother of four who works for a Native American tribal government, it’s unlikely that she’ll actually be able to pay it. In fact, media reports have speculated that it might push her into bankruptcy. Not only could this make the judgment useless as a deterrent, it might backfire by creating public sympathy for her financial plight.

Thomas-Rasset was sued, not criminally prosecuted -- but in Florida, online copyright violations can actually be prosecuted as a crime. Florida’s Offenses Against Intellectual Property statute makes it a felony carrying up to five years in prison to alter or destroy information from a computer system without permission. It also prohibits theft of trade secrets or confidential information from a computer system. Downloading songs probably wouldn’t be covered by the statute -- but many other innocent activities could be. As a South Florida cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, I believe the statute was written to criminalize malicious hacking -- but it could be interpreted as penalizing harmless behavior like clearing old data out of databases.

The law is still catching up to how people really use the Internet, and unfortunately, Thomas-Rasset’s case is a good example of how we sometimes fall short. My job as a Miami-Dade cyber crime criminal defense lawyer is to help people who are trapped by the law’s shortfalls -- or by prosecutors who don’t understand technology -- avoid the life-changing consequences of a serious criminal conviction. File-sharers like Thomas-Rasset may have broken the law, but their crimes are not so serious that they deserve to have their finances ruined.