Jammie Thomas-Rasset: The download martyr

RIAA fines Brainerd woman $220,000 for 24 songs

After letting Thomas-Rasset know that the RIAA had the goods on her, the caller moved on to the next part of the script: It wasn't too late. All could be forgiven, it could all go away. She just needed to make a public apology, promise to never do it again, and cut a check for several thousand dollars.

"When I heard that, I was like, 'What?'" Thomas-Rasset says. "It sounded like a shakedown. It was like some kind of extortion."

With her back against the wall, Thomas-Rasset did what almost no one else had done before her: She refused to pay up.

Jammie Thomas-Rasset at home with her son Tarent
Steve Kohls
Jammie Thomas-Rasset at home with her son Tarent

"It was actually a pretty easy decision for me," she says.

For one thing, she didn't have thousands of dollars lying around. A single mom, she was raising her two sons in a small rented apartment in Brainerd on a blue-collar salary.

But the stakes were high: If she was found liable, Thomas-Rasset would be on the hook for a lot more than the cost of those 24 songs. Federal law allows statutory damages up to $150,000 per violation. In Thomas-Rasset's case, that would total $3.6 million.

She was unfazed. Her father took out a loan against his motorcycle to help her scrape together the retainer fee for a lawyer, and she told the record industry to bring it on.

   

THE TRIAL DIDN'T go well for Thomas-Rasset.

The record companies' lead lawyer, Richard Gabriel, had the rehearsed confidence and impeccable hair of a politician. Pacing the white marble courtroom, he set out his case methodically.

The RIAA's investigation firm, MediaSentry, provided screenshots showing the music they downloaded from a KaZaA user named Tereastarr using the IP address 24.179.199.117.

The security manager from Thomas-Rasset's internet provider testified that on the February night MediaSentry was downloading the Goo Goo Dolls and Sarah McLachlan from that address, it was assigned to Thomas-Rasset.

Thomas-Rasset's lawyer, Brian Toder, did his best to introduce reasonable doubt. What if Thomas-Rasset was using a wireless router and someone outside the apartment leeched off her connection? What if someone hacked into her account and used her name?

"The best that they can come up with is that somebody out there in cyberland, somebody out there using an IP address, an account that was assigned to Jammie Thomas, offered on KaZaA some copyrighted material that was downloaded by plaintiffs," Toder argued. "Jammie Thomas didn't do any of that."

But Gabriel had other evidence suggesting that the KaZaA user Tereastarr wasn't someone sneaking onto Thomas-Rasset's computer connection.

"Her email address is now and in the past Tereastarr," he told the jury. "Her instant message address was Tereastarr. She used the Tereastarr name on online shopping accounts, including bestbuy.com and walmart.com. She used it for online video games. She uses it on a personal website that she has designed and created and uses at, which some of you will recognize, myspace.com. She uses Tereastarr for everything."

Between the IP address and the account name, Gabriel had strong evidence that Thomas-Rasset was the person making those 24 songs available for sharing on KaZaA. But because of KaZaA's peer-to-peer architecture, he had no way to prove that anyone—except the industry snoops themselves—had actually downloaded copies from her.

Gabriel argued that it didn't matter; making it available was infringement enough to justify a judgment. And in his closing instructions to the jury, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis agreed: If the jury thought Thomas-Rasset had made the songs available on KaZaA, she had committed copyright infringement.

With those instructions, the jury started its deliberations.

Thomas-Rasset and her lawyer went back to the hotel to eat some lunch. After just four hours, Toder's cell phone rang. The jury had reached a decision.

"At first we thought it was a good sign that they hadn't needed much deliberation," Thomas-Rasset says.

But back in the courtroom, that optimism turned to shock as the jury read its verdict: guilty. With no real guidelines, the jurors were free to assess statutory damages anywhere from $750 to $150,000 per song. For reasons never explained, they settled on the figure of $9,250 per song, for a total of $220,000.

Thomas-Rasset struggled to hold herself together as she left the courtroom. Fighting through the media scrum on the courthouse steps, she passed Gabriel, the lead attorney for the record industry, summing up the message his clients wanted to send with the trial: "This is what happens when you don't settle."

Alone in her car as reporters banged on the windows asking for her to comment, Thomas-Rasset took an inventory of what $220,000 in damages would mean.

"I was thinking, 'I'm gonna lose my house. I'm gonna lose my car. I'm gonna have to sell everything, and they're still going to garnish my wages to get all that from me. How am I going to provide for my kids?'"

Her face was a stoic mask as she nosed her car through the crowd, but once she made it to the open road, she let herself go.

"I just broke down," she says. "I couldn't stop sobbing. I felt like my whole life was gone."

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