Supreme Court to illegal music downloaders: Ignorance is no defense

Think you can get away with illegally downloading music if you didn’t know you were breaking the law? Nice try. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the case of a Texas teenager who was making that argument, effectively shutting it down for the foreseeable future.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the Supreme Court declined today to hear an appeal from Whitney Harper. Several years ago, when she was a high school cheerleader living with her family in San Antonio, Harper used the file-sharing service Kazaa to download 37 songs by artists like Eminem, Mariah Carey, and the Police, according to a 2008 Wired story. The Recording Industry Association of America sued her years later under a law that would require her to pay $750 per downloaded song.

Harper in turn argued that she shouldn’t have to pay such high fines because she hadn’t realized she was doing anything illegal. “She argued that she was not aware that the file-sharing program on her computer was dealing in stolen property,” per the CSM. “She said she thought the songs could be downloaded for free, just like listening to the radio on the Internet.” While one federal judge sided with Harper at first, an appeals court overturned that decision.

By refusing to hear Harper’s latest appeal, the Supreme Court is essentially letting the RIAA’s approach stand. So from now on, all the record industry has to do is post copyright notices on CD jewel boxes. If you somehow miss those warnings and pirate music anyway, you’re officially out of luck.

What do you think of the Supreme Court’s stance on this issue? Let’s hear it.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

Comments (78 total) Add your comment
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  • daisyj

    I’m not inclined to side with the RIAA on things, but this one seems pretty clear-cut. Since when has ignorance been an excuse for breaking a law?

    • Ap

      You’d be surprised

    • Daniel

      Agreed. If you don’t know the speed limit and are speeding, you are breaking the law and are subject to a ticket.

      • WBS

        I know where you’re coming from but it’s a bad analogy. Everyone knows there are speed limits…someone may just not know how fast.

    • Meli

      Steve Martin used to say in his standup act the two most powerful words in the universe were ‘I FORGOT’. ‘Gee Your Honor, I FORGOT it was illegal to rob a bank’. So the I FORGOT defense has been stricken.

      • B

        Yeah, a song and a bank vault are 2 different things. Tell me one music exec or artist who lost their home because of illegal downloading… MC Hammer doesn’t count.

      • Ethan

        To B… Its not the artists that I care get paid, its the other music industry people (engineers, artists, studio musicians, etc) that don’t get paid much are the ones that get robbed. I could care less if Kanye West’s luxuries in life are reduced, it takes a lot of people to produce an album.

  • Brett

    The last part doesn’t make sense to me. People who download music off of the internet DON’T HAVE the CD cases, so how can they know it’s copyrighted? There is the loophole right there, and hopefully, this RIDICULOUS decision will be overturned.

    $750 per song? Uh, I think it should have to do with the artist/how good the song is. I wouldn’t pay even a full dollar for a Mariah Carey song…

    • Jonathan

      That’s you though. Taste in music is relative, which means there’s really no definition of how ‘good’ a song is. Mariah has more #1’s than any other solo artist, so there’s obviously people out there who would disagree. I think this is a good way of punishing someone who just didn’t consider the consequences.

    • Mykal

      It will not be turned over…there is no one above the supreme court. Also, it is not a loophole, this decision made it clear that stealing is stealing, RIAA has performed “due diligence” in putting the warning on the jewel case. So…the music does not magically appear on the websites so someone somewhere originally bought the cd and agreed to the law, wether anyone else has or not.

      • B

        Is someOne above the Supreme Court. His name is God. The Almighty thinks downloading hurts no one but the greedy music execs who are all going to burn in hell anyway for their cocaine parties and underage sexual encounters. And if the artists are popular enough, they won’t be affected, but they will be going to hell anyways. Amen.

    • BEN

      I totaly agree it doesnt say warning about to download illegal files.

  • Jay

    Record lables have put so much copyright protection on everything that it is easier to steal music than it is to take music from a CD you paid for and put it onto a device.
    I have actually “stolen” music that I had purchased the CD for because I could not get the music from my CD to my player.
    I had no problem whatsoever finding the music online and downloading it.

    I understand they gotta make money, but there has got to be a better way

  • Brett

    Uh, that actually is a defense a lot of the time. For example, in Ottumwa, Iowa, “It is unlawful for any male person, within the corporate limits of the (city), to wink at any female person with whom he is unacquainted.” Don’t tell me that everyone in that city knows that’s an actual law…

    • Kate

      Ignorance still wouldn’t be a defense if somebody decided to enforce that law you described. But nobody’s going to enforce it b/c it’s a waste of the court’s time and resources (and it’s ridiculous).

      • Chip H

        It’s a waste of the court’s time and resources as well as ridiculous to sue teenagers for downloading music.

      • David4

        It is enforced!

        The RIAA wants you to buy the CD and then the music again to stick on your MP3 player. That’s insane. To them everyone who ever had a VCR, DVD recorder of DVR is breaking the law, they are crazy and have gone to court for insane reasons.

  • Marcus Johnson

    Just realized that the $27,750 she will now have to pay would probably have been less than the lawyer fees she spent fighting this case. Some world, huh?

  • Sarah

    I understand why this was an issue before iPods and iTunes were available, but now, just buy the damn iPod and fork out the $.99 a song.

    • Jay

      iTunes is awful

      • Devin Faraci

        You’re awful.

      • Idol8fan

        iTunes is awful. Buy the tune via download at Amazon or other places. Buy the CD and rip it for better quality sound than you get with download.

      • Bobington

        Oh I love how offended Apple-ites get when you insult an Apple product….always good for a laugh.

      • Jamie

        I use both iTunes and Amazon. You can usually find CD’s cheaperon Amazon (I got Rhianna’s last CD for $4.99) plus Amazon’s downloads aren’t restricted like iTunes.

    • really

      an ipod holds about 10,000 songs at .99 each. do the math….. what the heck

  • Val

    I’m sorry, but the punishment should fit the crime. I would like to see rapists fined like this or someone who is beaten within an inch of their life to have their wallet taken get a monetary reward like this, but to fine someone for taking 37 songs?? GIVE ME A F’N BREAK!!! Like Mariah Carey NEEDS MORE MONEY!!!!!!! Yes, it is wrong, but making her spend 3 weeks in jail would teach her the same lesson.

    • Jay

      hmm… that is a valid point you’ve got there.
      This could be defended as excessive punishment for sure.
      A short jail stay would be more suitable.
      Thats what they do to people who rob houses, isn’t it?
      Why would this (lesser) crime have a harsher penalty?

      • Mel

        Because it is NOT stealing. If I buy a CD put it on the internet I own it and it is mine to share. The RIAA just wants to bleed their customers which is why people do not want to be their customers any more.

    • Nathan

      No doubt, what’s Mariah gonna do with the extra cash, get even fatter thighs?

      • Erin

        this made me laugh out loud. :D

      • Daniel

        Mariah won’t even see the money. It’s corporate America that will see the windfall.

      • Bobington

        Corporate America! LOL I love it, the term of the ignorant!

    • Emme

      While I agree with you that this punishment seems excessive, the implication that being paid would somehow make up for being raped or beaten is rather offensive. I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it comes across.

      I’m with you on the ridiculousness of fining her $750 per song, though. Greedy greedy greedy.

      • Val

        Then should a monetary reward in civil cases where a loss of someone’s life occurred be considered offensive?? Receiving NO compensation for pain and suffering while the person responsible usually serves only a few years while the victim is scarred for life isn’t fair either! Money is something that can improve the quality of someone’s life and can be punitive to someone else. It isn’t necessarily meant to “make up” for what was done, because there just isn’t any way to do that.

  • wakeforce

    I have been buying music since I was 10 years old, starting with old 45s, then LPs, cassettes and eventually cds. I have the industry for years and even bought music over again after losing my collections 3 different times because so-called friends stole my copies.
    It was costly to replace LPs with cds. Now cds are almost obsolete. I think the industry should lower their prices for catalog albums, put better music out there and quit
    going after 17-year old girls and long-standing record buyers.

    • Nathan

      Exactly, I say f**k the music industry. Artists like Kesha and the Black Eyed Peas have enough money as it is, with their level of talent, they should be playing for spare change on the street corner!


      very well put wakeforce

    • PassingThrough

      You should’ve just stuck with your LPs.

  • Point

    The one unassailable fact in all of this is that the RIAA is protecting the record labels and NOT the artists. Many of the artists don’t care about file-sharing, as proliferation of the music has raised their profiles and driven their concert ticket and merchandise sales.

    • Kvivik

      This is ultimate fact. Very few artists get a decent cut of album sales. They make most of their money from tours and performances. If there were a way for me to pay the band/songwriters the money for the songs I download directly, I would in a heartbeat. But until I can do that, I’ll download legally and illegally depending on the availability of the material I want. Some music just isn’t available on itunes. :-P

      • David4

        Exactly right. I rather download the artist music and then buy a t-shirt. One of my favorite bands right now is PAZ, they are wonderful and all their music is free.

    • Karl

      I absolutely agree. There’s a reason why tours are consistently the biggest percentage of a performer’s income. The CD sales really don’t rack up to a lot – it’s all the record industries trying to make their money.

    • Mike S.

      Artists want to sell records and went their CD flops. Record labels are not eager to invest money in the artist next cd or tour. Record labels and artists can not exist if no one is buying the music. Free music does not pay the artist bills.

  • wakeforce

    meant to say “supported the industry”

  • technically

    By not hearing the appeal, the Supreme Court *isn’t* necessarily agreeing with the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court gets thousands of petitions for review each year, but only hears less than 100. By not reviewing this case, the lower court decision stands, but that doesn’t mean that national law has been created. A different federal court could come to a different conclusion tomorrow. The Supreme Court usually doesn’t decide to review an issue the first time it gets tried in the lower courts.

  • TJ. Church

    Getting songs for nothing is no more illegal than making someone pay $20 for Miley or Bieber; Both are stealing, & 1 is also robbery.

  • beachmom

    A lot of artists do care about file sharing, and would prefer people pay for their music. However, it is my understanding that none of the money the RIAA has collected from these lawsuits has actually gone to the artists. That is as wrong as file sharing.

  • MSR

    The RIAA needs to realize that going after individuals for downloading songs has done NOTHING to affect the downloading of illegal music and only makes them and the record companies look greedy in the eyes of the public. I understand the industry’s ailing, but that’s because they have not adopted well to the digital model and honestly, the influx of flash in the pan artists has not helped.

  • dropper

    They busted her for downloading 37 songs? There are people who illegally download by the hundreds and the feds are not busting down their doors. That being said, her argument was pretty weak.

    • joblo

      That’s what struck me about this story. It’s illegal. But why’d the pick her out when there are, as you say, TONS of people out there who d/l 37 songs in 5 minutes, let alone total? Go after the dudes who have 1000’s of songs.

    • Bobington

      Probably what it comes down to is the security of the songs downloaded. I know back in the Napster days I never shared anything I downloaded and immediately moved the songs to a second harddrive so they were no longer available where originally downloaded and were hidden from Napster, Kazaa, or whatever I was using to download. The main reason she is getting sued is her ignorance and not knowing to do this and hide the downloaded songs on another harddrive.

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