Supreme Court: Ignorance no Defense for Illegal Downloaders

By Jason Beahm on November 30, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Is downloading music illegal if you aren't aware that it's illegal to do so? Yep.

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a glove slap to that argument, by denying certiorari in the case of a Texas teenager who appealed her case to the high court. The choice not to hear the case means that, at least for now, the Court will not review the RIAA's lawsuits against file sharers.

Whitney Harper used Kazaa, a file-sharing service, to download music while she was in high school. Between the age of 14 and 16, she downloaded at least 37 songs, by artists including Eminem, Mariah Carey and the Police. She was sued for piracy by the Recording Industry Association of America for damages of $750 per song. She was ordered to pay the RIAA $27,750.

At least 40,000 alleged illegal downloaders have been sued or faced legal threats for downloading music from shared peer-to-peer IP networks like Kazaa and LimeWire.

Harper argued she shouldn't have to pay the fine because she never intended to steal and was completely unaware that she was breaking the law. Essentially she was arguing that she was entitled to use the inadvertent innocent infringer defense. An innocent infringer is someone who is unaware they are committing copyright infringement.

"[Whitney Harper] did not understand the nature of file-sharing networks. She believed that listening to music using a file-sharing network was akin to listening to a non-infringing Internet radio station," Kiwi Camara, Harper's attorney unsuccessfully argued.

The decision means that thousands of file-sharing lawsuits are likely to proceed against alleged illegal downloaders.

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