Imagine that you are a young person that had a file sharing application on your computer, and that you shared 24 songs with other people.
Now we can debate if song sharing is bad or not, but basically it's against the law, and there are penalties for breaking the law. And there's a civil lawsuit brought against you by the music industry, and you lose. Twice actually.
You might imagine that the penalty is somehow related to the cost of the songs, maybe the number of files shared. How much is that, 99 cents per song on iTunes? Oh wait, maybe because of iTunes shenanigans, most of those tracks cost $1.29 now. So what is that, $31? OK, so even with treble damages, the total penalty should be less than $100, right?
Could you imagine that the penalty is actually $80,000 PER SONG? So that your actual total penalty for all 24 songs is close to $2 million!!!
You, the poor defendant, argue that the penalty is so unconsionably high that it could not be constitutional. After all, you are but a poor individual, not a money making song pirating outfit. $2 million is nowhere near the value of the songs shared, nor the amount of damages, nor what you could even pay.
But guess which administration has just filed a legal brief that $2 million is absolutely constitutional. In fact it is "carefully crafted." Yes, you guessed it, the Obama administration Department of Justice. This is a government agency intervening in a civil trial on behalf of the music corporations, against an individual, claiming that a $2 million damage award is just fine.
In reality, these penalties were established by Congress, at the urging of the music industry, to prevent industrial-scale music "piracy." The large fines were intended to deter business enterprises from entering the illegal music copying business. And yet, here this law is being used to destroy a young person.
The young person in question, Jammie Thomas, admitted she did share the songs, and her trial is part of a larger strategy by the music industry to file lawsuits against their own customers because file-sharing. Thomas definitely was not a saint. But there's no way that $2 million is in any way comparable to the amount of actual damage done. Or that she deserves her own government to go to bat for the other team.
It's a double whammy really. The law with an $80,000 penalty was "crafted" at the urging of music industry lobbyists, and Congress and the (then) president were happy to sign off on it. So already the deck is stacked once against the little guy. But then -- and here is the second whammy -- the government's lawyers intervene on behalf of the music industry during the trial to say that this law is great. Indeed it was finely crafted! How can Ms. Thomas have any chance at all? I don't doubt that this intervention is actually more payback for political contributions. Department of Justice lawyers know who butters their bosses' bread.
If music file sharing were a rare and extremely damaging thing, there might be a point to having extraordinary penalties. But in fact, there are tens of millions of file sharers, and in surveys, most people considering some file sharing to be morally acceptable. The actual damage is small. As noted above, sharing a few songs with others would cost the music companies at most a few hundred dollars in lost sales. The actual punishment, $80,000 per song, is so usurious it is absurd. The fact that tens of millions of people may be liable for such huge penalties just shows how arbitrary the whole process is. Whether you get caught in the music industry's dragnet or not is the difference between sharing a few songs and sure bankruptcy. The fact that the administration's "Justice" department is intervening in favor of wreaking such personal destruction is very dismaying.