(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday turned down the appeal of a student who was fined $27,750 for illegally sharing 37 copyrighted songs on a file-sharing network. Justice Samuel Alito said he would have taken the case, because the lower court relied on a 1988 law that might not apply to digital music downloads.
The 5th Circuit ruled in February that Whitney Harper could not pay a reduced minimum fine of $200 per infringed track — instead of $750 — as an “innocent infringer.” The federal appeals court cited a provision that says infringers should know they are breaking the law since copyright notice “appears on the published phonorecord.”
“But a person who downloads a digital music file generally does not see any material object bearing a copyright notice, and accordingly there is force to the argument that [the provision] does not apply,” Alito wrote, dissenting from his colleagues’ decision not to hear the case. “In such a case, the question would simply be whether the infringer ‘was … aware and had … reason to believe,’ that the downloading was illegal.”
Though the 5th Circuit found that the “youth and lack of legal sophistication” of Harper, who was 16 when Maverick Recording and other labels sued her in 2007, were not relevant, Alito said they could have been considered to determine Harper’s “reason to believe.”
“The 5th Circuit’s decision may or may not set out sensible rule for the post-‘phonorecord’ age, but it is at least questionable whether the decision correctly interprets” the phonorecord provision, he wrote. “Although there are now no conflicting circuit decisions, I would grant review in this case because not many cases presenting this issue are likely to reach the Courts of Appeals.”