Thursday, February 25, 2010

5th Circuit decision on "innocent infringer" damages reduction defense in copyright case

The 5th Circuit recently whacked a defendant found liable for copyright infringement by downloading, and possibly sharing, 37 of the plaintiff’s copyrighted songs through a peer-to-peer file-sharing network. Maverick Recording Co. v. Harper, No. 08-51194 (5th Cir. Feb. 25, 2010).

The district court had entered summary judgment of infringement. The plaintiff requested minimum statutory damages of $750 per song under 17 USC § 504(c)(1), but the defendant argued that she was an innocent infringer and therefore should be liable only for the 17 USC § 504(c)(2) reduced amount of $200 per song. The district court found that the defendant’s testimony—that she was too young to understand that such free downloading and sharing constituted copyright infringement—created a trial issue.

The copyright owner accepted the $200 per song judgment, but reserved the right to appeal the innocent infringer issue if the infringer appealed. The infringer appealed.

Bad idea.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the infringement finding and threw out the infringer’s weak due process argument (to paraphrase the defense: “$200 per song is unconstitutional given that I was young and naive”). The Fifth Circuit then found that the infringer’s "young and ignorant of the law" argument immaterial to the “innocent infringement” defense as well because the copyright owner put copyright notices on its “phonorecords” (e.g., CDs). Even though there was no evidence that the file-downloading infringer ever saw a CD, 17 USC § 402(d) prohibits the “innocent infringement” reduction where the infringer had “access” to the “phonorecord,” a point that the infringer failed to contest. Having stripped away the innocent infringer reduction, the Fifth Circuit remanded for entry of judgment for the amount the copyright owner originally requested: $750 per song.

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