Judge: $30K Penalty For Pirating Movies Is “Excessive Punishment”

The producers of Elf-Man sought default judgements of $30,000 against each defendant accused of pirating the movie.

The producers of Elf-Man sought default judgements of $30,000 against each defendant accused of pirating the movie.

If police catch you racing down the highway at 25 mph over the speed limit, you’ll probably have to pay a ticket in the low three-figure range, even though you were putting your life and the lives of others at risk. But get accused of illegally downloading a movie and you should have to pay $30,000? Not according to a federal judge in Washington state.

The judge recently ruled on pair of cases in which producers of two independent films sought substantial penalties against individuals alleged to have pirated their movies.

Most piracy suits never make it to a courtroom, as the accused tend to settle for significantly less money than the copyright holders seek. When the alleged pirates don’t respond to a complaint, the rights holder will often seek a default judgement for the full amount.

In these cases, the producers were seeking $30,000 from each defendant, except for one couple, which it charitably divided into two penalties of $15,000 each. But rather than rubber-stamp these judgements, the court asked for evidence to support the request for these damages.

“At the default judgment stage, well-pleaded factual allegations are considered admitted and are sufficient to establish a defendant’s liability,” writes the judge, “but allegations regarding the amount of damages must be proven… The court must ensure that the amount of damages is reasonable and demonstrated by the evidence.”

And while the judge found that the evidence presented by the plaintiffs “strongly suggests each Defendant knowingly and intentionally, as opposed to inadvertently or accidentally, downloaded files off BitTorrent, the evidence is insufficient to prove that each Defendant willfully violated copyright infringement laws,” explaining that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the defendants knew they were infringing or that their actions were the result of “reckless disregard” for, or “willful blindness” to, the copyright holder’s rights.

More importantly, with regard to the $30,000 penalties, the court took issue with just how much damage had been done to the merit that amount.

According to the court, the evidence showed that the defendants merely downloaded and shared online a movie that could be purchased or rented for less than $20. This was not an issue commercial resale, where the defendants would profit on the backs of the copyright holders.

This evidence, writes the judge, “does not support a $30,000 penalty for each Defendant.”

Among the considerations involved in calculating the damages, explains the judge, are the amount of money requested in relation to the seriousness of the defendant’s conduct, whether large sums of money are involved, and whether “the recovery sought is proportional to the harm caused by defendant’s conduct.”

“This Court finds an award of $30,000 for each defendant would be an excessive punishment considering the seriousness of each Defendant’s conduct and the sum of money at issue,” reads the ruling, which discounts the producers’ claims that there was much more damage done than merely the loss of a few DVD and download sales, and that piracy ultimately scrapped plans for a sequel to one movie.

“Instead, this Court finds Plaintiff has not made a showing justifying damages in excess of the statutory minimum” of $750 plus legal fees, which would bring the total for each defendant to a few thousand dollars.


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