“Innocent” File Sharer Petitions SCOTUS for Writ of Cert
Every law student is familiar with the latin phrase “ignorantia juris non excusat” or “ignorance of the law does not excuse.” Well, the Supreme Court may review a modern twist on this age old maxim if it takes up Whitney Harper’s appeal in Maverick Recording Co. v. Harper. As a teenager, Harper used LimeWire to download 37 of the plaintiffs’ copyrighted songs. The plaintiffs asked the district court to impose at least the minimum statutory fine of $750 per song, for a total of $27,750 in damages. However, Harper asserted that her liability was limited to $200 per song because she was an “innocent infringer” under the Copyright Act which provides
“where the infringer sustains the burden of proving . . . that [she] was not aware and had no reason to believe that . . . her acts constituted an infringement of copyright, the court in its discretion may reduce the award of statutory damages to a sum of not less than $200.”
In essence, the innocent infringer exception allows a defendant to assert ignorance of a copyright as a defense to the minimum statutory penalties. Harper claimed that she did not know she violated anyone’s copyright because she believed she was streaming the music as if LimeWire were internet radio. The district court, persuaded by Harper, capped her liability at $200 per violation. However, the 5th Circuit reversed, awarding the plaintiffs’ $27,750 in damages. The 5th Circuit held that Harper could not avail herself of the innocent infringer exception because the CDs of the songs Harper downloaded contained a copyright warning. So, even though the digital copy of the song did not include a copyright warning, the CD supposedly put Harper on notice that the songs were copyrighted. You can read Harper’s petition for writ of certiorari here.