Jammie Thomas-Rasset: The download martyr

RIAA fines Brainerd woman $220,000 for 24 songs

AT THE VERY end of a snowbound dead-end road outside Brainerd, in a small beige single-story house out in the woods, lives one of the world's most notorious cyber-criminals.

Sitting in her den with her family and dog on a recent weekend, Jammie Thomas-Rasset doesn't seem quite so threatening. Short and sturdily built, she wears her long dark hair parted down the middle.

She's got an ordinary job, as a brownfields coordinator for the Mille-Lacs band of Ojibwe in Brainerd. She spends most of her time figuring out how to get petroleum seepage out of former gas station properties. Weekends she spends shuttling her kids back and forth to their father, who lives in Superior.

Jammie Thomas-Rasset lives with her husband, Chad, and their children in Brainerd
Steve Kohls
Jammie Thomas-Rasset lives with her husband, Chad, and their children in Brainerd

There's not a lot of time in her life to be either the hero or the villain that so many people want her to be.

Ever since she was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America five years ago, Thomas-Rasset has become a central figure in the revolutions convulsing the music business. She's been featured in documentaries about remix culture and gets recognized in the supermarket from her appearances on the evening news.

Almost everyone who received a threatening letter from the RIAA in those days settled with the record labels instead of going to court. Not Thomas-Rasset—she was the first person to fight.

The result has been a seemingly endless legal battle, with three separate trials and the promise of more to come.

But as she's lost case after case, Thomas-Rasset has become something of a martyr to the digital revolution, a symbol of the lengths to which a powerful industry will go to protect an out-dated business model.

What Thomas-Rasset has going for her is a quality the record industry never expected: a complete refusal to surrender.

"In a lot of ways, this case is a vestige from another era," says Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which tracks digital copyright issues. "The industry has recognized this was a bad idea, but her case is still working its way through the system."

   

IN 2005, THE recording industry was in a full-fledged panic. Global sales were down for the fifth year in a row and showed no sign of hitting bottom any time soon.

The reason seemed pretty clear: Six years after suing the file-sharing service Napster into submission, the industry's business model was still being shaken to its foundations. In Napster's place, new networks for sharing mp3s sprung up like the heads of a hydra: Bearshare, Morpheus, Grokster, KaZaA, Gnutella, and dozens of other networks with equally silly names provided the young and tech-savvy with all the free music they could download.

It was as if the labels' most lucrative demographic of customers had suddenly turned against them.

So the labels decided to raise the stakes. They began suing music fans. By the beginning of 2005, the labels had filed 7,437 lawsuits against fans suspected of uploading copyrighted music.

Almost inevitably, those the labels sued rolled over and coughed up the money, figuring it would be cheaper to settle out of court than to hire a lawyer and be dragged into a courtroom to stare down giant corporations.

The strong-arm tactics brought in millions in settlements, though the RIAA says the windfall didn't even cover legal costs. And it didn't seem to be having much effect on file-sharing. Mostly, it was driving downloaders to more anonymous sharing systems like BitTorrent.

Meanwhile, the mass legal threats were such a blunt tool that obviously innocent people were getting wrapped up in the battle. Sarah Ward, a 66-year-old dyslexic retired grandmother, was threatened with a lawsuit over allegedly pirating millions of dollars in hard-core rap. The record industry said Ward perpetrated the heist using KaZaA, a Windows-only program, despite the fact that Ward owned a Mac.

But the record industry didn't seem to mind the collateral damages. As RIAA spokeswoman Amy Weiss said, "When you fish with a net, you sometimes are going to catch a few dolphin."

   

THOMAS-RASSET REMEMBERS THE day the letter came. It was August 2005. Bringing the mail in from the porch before starting dinner, one envelope stood out at her. The letterhead looked imposing. It was from the law firm of Shook, Hardy and Bacon.

"I didn't really understand what it was talking about, but it gave a number for me to call," she says.

When she called the number, the law firm wanted to talk to her about KaZaA.

"I said, 'What are you talking about?'" she says. "They're telling me that they know I'm sharing things on KaZaA—I didn't even know what KaZaA was."

Thomas-Rasset's protestations of ignorance didn't matter to the people on the other end of the phone. MediaSentry, a private investigation company hired by the RIAA, knew what KaZaA was. They also knew that someone on her internet connection was using it to share music online, as many as 1,700 songs.

For purposes of simplicity, the RIAA limited its complaint to two dozen songs, an eclectic list that included Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me," Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," Richard Marx's "Now and Forever," and Green Day's "Basket Case."

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