Ear Shot: How This Pirate Was Fined $1.5 Mil

Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT/Landov
Tuned Out: Single mother Jammie Thomas-Rasset is on 
the hook for 
$1.5 million.

New verdict in music biz’s war on illegal downloads puts a dollar value on songs

It’s more than a little ironic that of the 24 songs Minnesota single mom Jammie Thomas-Rasset downloaded from peer-to-peer network KaZaa in 2005 — an action that would land her on the receiving end of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit initiated by the major record companies — one is the Destiny’s Child hit “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Ordered to pay $1.5 million by a federal jury in Minneapolis, a landmark decision in that it’s the third and most decisive verdict in a string of appeals, the 33-year-old Native American housewife, who makes less than $40,000 a year, is likely looking at a lifetime of them, legal and otherwise (her defense team worked pro bono), in her one-woman war against the music industry.  

The question on all parties’ minds: Will the jury’s decision, which valued each song — or infraction — at $62,500, have any effect on the millions of people illegally downloading music every day? Will the exorbitant penalty curb future piracy on any substantial level? Was it worth it?

Not surprisingly, executives, academics and artists are torn on the matter and the way Thomas’ case in particular — one of 20,000 individual lawsuits initiated and the first high-profile legal dispute since 2008 — has been handled. At the same time, many have simply resigned to a static sense of helplessness, with no viable solutions to today’s music business reality. “I don’t condone piracy, but unfortunately, it’s happening left and right,” R&B singer Keri Hilson says. “On one hand, I’m happy people are seeking out my music, but the songwriter in me says it hurts the industry and it’s a ripple effect. I don’t think this woman should have to pay so much money, but I hope it serves as an example.”

That sentiment is echoed by label heads and the Recording Industry Association of America, the organization that speaks on behalf of the major record companies and has been their partner in the battle against piracy — and make no mistake, it is a costly one. “It’s a tough fight to win,” says David Renzer, CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group. “We’re competing with free, and maybe this is a heavy-handed way to educate people, but we have to send the message to a new generation of kids who listen to music in different ways. They grow up buying singles, not albums, sometimes paying for it, frequently not. It’s an unfortunate reality.”

Then there are those who contend that the anti-piracy effort, while seemingly done with good intentions (to compensate artists fairly for their work), is misguided in its method, and making Thomas the face of piracy is off base. Although it should be noted that the RIAA names defendants based on activity associated with an IP address, the individual (of which there have been many children and even a deceased grandparent or two) is ID’d later.

“If the point is to make an example, then this is an unrelatable one,” says Jeff Rabhan, chair of NYU’s Clive Davis department of recorded music. “Nail a few hundred college kids for $5,000 each, or all of Ohio State, and people will notice.”

Aside from the issue of what constitutes sharing, which in a previous phase of the case was defined as to include simply housing songs on a hard drive, the value of a song is at the heart of the debate, which began in earnest with the Napster case in 2000. Although the heated exchanges between Metallica and founder Sean Parker have long since faded, many who watched from the sidelines are still incensed at how things turned out. “The record companies didn’t get it together early because of silly jealousies,” says songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, who’s worked with stars like Neil Diamond and Carly Simon. “They could’ve banded together and prevented a Napster, which led to all this illegal downloading. Instead, the music business has been turned on its ear and hasn’t recovered yet. At least there’s a legitimate alternative with iTunes, but I’m glad I wrote most of my hits when everyone was paying the labels.”  

In fact, some would argue that legitimate music sales should serve as loss leaders and that the real money is in branding. Says Scooter Braun, who manages Justin Bieber and rapper Asher Roth, “We’re still the music business because that’s where it starts and where it ends, but rather than worry about how many CDs we sell our first week, we should realize that the T-shirt makes more profit than the album, that we can sell books, we can make movies, we can branch out.”

If you believe that, then the Thomas case has even less bearing on the big picture. “This isn’t even a blip,” Rabhan says. “It’s so outdated and meaningless; it would be like showing up to the Indy 500 with a horse and buggy expecting to win.”