Is ignorance a valid legal defense for file-sharing?

By Mark O’Neill
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

A 16 year old girl has successfully managed to have her fine for file sharing reduced after she argued she was too young to understand that her music downloading was unlawful.   Which raises the question – is ignorance a valid legal defense?

Whitney Harper will now only have to pay $200 per downloaded song instead of $750 which was the penalty demanded by the record labels.   $200 is still an outrageous amount for a single song, but I suppose most of it is a deterrent and a penalty for what she has done.

Her lawyer argued in court that “a person her age could not understand the illegality of her acts and could therefore not be capable of intentionally infringing the copyright in the music.”

Harper told the court in a statement that she had had “no knowledge or understanding of file trading, online distribution networks or copyright infringement”.   She went even further and said that she believed programs like KaZaA “to be similar to online radio stations”

The judge believed her.

I’m leaning towards the notion that the judge is a moron and that 16 year old Whitney has taken him for a ride.  Show me one 16 year old that doesn’t know what a file sharing network is?   Show me one 16 year old that doesn’t rip CD’s, that doesn’t have illegal MP3’s on their iPod’s and MP3 players?    Every 16 year old knows what a file sharing network is and what it does!  I bet if the judge has children, they’re probably at home right now downloading Season 3 of Prison Break.

Do you agree?   Or is ignorance really a valid Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card?   Can a person really be too young to know what they are doing in things like this?

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32 Responses to Is ignorance a valid legal defense for file-sharing?

  1. I do not care what she downloaded… %750… even $200 per song for a fine is absolutely moronic. It is obvious that the judge is not an idiot in this situation. He realizes the record company has the money to hire a good lawyer, wants to make as much money out of this as possible as a sort of scare tactic. Hoping that once out on the media (news, papers etc…) it will scare people from downloading illegally. This was just one girl that got unlucky by getting caught. And the judge let her get away with it as much as he could.

    Of course, on the other hand, I do not have the complete story… I am merely laying down my opinion from a quick read of a couple of paragraphs… Not really a smart thing in itself.

  2. I do not care what she downloaded… %750… even $200 per song for a fine is absolutely moronic. It is obvious that the judge is not an idiot in this situation. He realizes the record company has the money to hire a good lawyer, wants to make as much money out of this as possible as a sort of scare tactic. Hoping that once out on the media (news, papers etc…) it will scare people from downloading illegally. This was just one girl that got unlucky by getting caught. And the judge let her get away with it as much as he could.

    Of course, on the other hand, I do not have the complete story… I am merely laying down my opinion from a quick read of a couple of paragraphs… Not really a smart thing in itself.

  3. I work in IP, and ignorance is not a valid defense for infringement, but it certainly goes a long way as a mitigating factor in determining compensation. It doesn't matter if your a 16-year-old girl, or a 45-year-old and you don't even need to prove ignorance. The onus is on the infringed to prove the infringer knew they were doing something illegal when it comes to seeking damages.

    In this case, the 16-year-old girl has been punished, albeit less severely, so clearly ignorance was not a valid defense in determining her guilt.

  4. I work in IP, and ignorance is not a valid defense for infringement, but it certainly goes a long way as a mitigating factor in determining compensation. It doesn’t matter if your a 16-year-old girl, or a 45-year-old and you don’t even need to prove ignorance. The onus is on the infringed to prove the infringer knew they were doing something illegal when it comes to seeking damages.

    In this case, the 16-year-old girl has been punished, albeit less severely, so clearly ignorance was not a valid defense in determining her guilt.

  5. @HSO:

    I agree with some of your statement, mostly that the girl knows what she's doing, but $200/song is beyond punishment, it's as ignorant as beating up an adult that bullied you in elementary school. Saying it's "less severe" shows you're (sic) part of the same broken system.

    I believe Trent Reznor has shown one way to sell music online; perhaps his criticized method is not as lucrative as raping the public at $18/CD, but it does have the fortitude of honesty behind it.

    • $200 rather than a potential $750 = less severe punishment in my mind. "Less severe" still implies "severe" punishment, just less of it. Make of it what you will. I didn't even offer an opinion on whether I felt the punishment was justified; I was merely commenting that ignorance is not a valid defense (as Mark had put it) but rather should be viewed as a mitigating factor in determining compensation.

      As for me being part of a broken system … it's a job I reluctantly took to pay bills when I realized there was zero opportunity for me to work in my chosen career after I moved to London. Honestly, I can't stand working in IP. It sucks more than you can possibly imagine and most days I feel like throwing myself off a tall building, and until you've worked in IP, you cannot imagine it. Trust me on this. Almost no one chooses to work in IP – it chooses you. :(

  6. @HSO:

    I agree with some of your statement, mostly that the girl knows what she’s doing, but $200/song is beyond punishment, it’s as ignorant as beating up an adult that bullied you in elementary school. Saying it’s “less severe” shows you’re (sic) part of the same broken system.

    I believe Trent Reznor has shown one way to sell music online; perhaps his criticized method is not as lucrative as raping the public at $18/CD, but it does have the fortitude of honesty behind it.

    • $200 rather than a potential $750 = less severe punishment in my mind. “Less severe” still implies “severe” punishment, just less of it. Make of it what you will. I didn’t even offer an opinion on whether I felt the punishment was justified; I was merely commenting that ignorance is not a valid defense (as Mark had put it) but rather should be viewed as a mitigating factor in determining compensation.

      As for me being part of a broken system … it’s a job I reluctantly took to pay bills when I realized there was zero opportunity for me to work in my chosen career after I moved to London. Honestly, I can’t stand working in IP. It sucks more than you can possibly imagine and most days I feel like throwing myself off a tall building, and until you’ve worked in IP, you cannot imagine it. Trust me on this. Almost no one chooses to work in IP – it chooses you. :(

  7. She would be tried as an adult in a murder trial at 16, she knew what she was doing she just had the teenage mentality that she would not get caught, that only happens to other people right???

  8. She would be tried as an adult in a murder trial at 16, she knew what she was doing she just had the teenage mentality that she would not get caught, that only happens to other people right???

  9. Ignorance cannot, in any case that I'm aware of, be used as a defense in the US. If you stab someone, but you don't know that's bad, you're still guilty of stabbing someone.

  10. Ignorance cannot, in any case that I’m aware of, be used as a defense in the US. If you stab someone, but you don’t know that’s bad, you’re still guilty of stabbing someone.

  11. Putting aside the legalities of whether ingonrance is a usable defense, this case just reiterates the problems of copyright associated with physically intangible material.

    Look at the problem through the eyes of a 16 year old – if you steal a car, or a loaf of bread, you can clearly understand how you have deprived somebody of something.

    However music, like software, is physically immaterial so although the words "stealing music" make sense, the actuality of the act does not. How can you have "stolen" it if someone else also has a copy?

    The problem is compounded by how music is presented in society – you can listen to it on the radio for freee (advertising revenue is immaterial to a 16 year old). The problem is exactly the same for torrent distribution of TV episodes – in the mind of a 16 year old how can it really be theft if it is broadcast on tv? You can watch it for free when it is broadcast and you can go to your neighbour's house and watch it.

    These are adult concepts beyond simply understanding "it is against the law" – especially if the law seems particularly stupid and at odds with the reality of listening to "free" radio and watching "free" tv.

    The law needs to change. The music industry needs to try a new angle.

    Just my $0.02

  12. Putting aside the legalities of whether ingonrance is a usable defense, this case just reiterates the problems of copyright associated with physically intangible material.

    Look at the problem through the eyes of a 16 year old – if you steal a car, or a loaf of bread, you can clearly understand how you have deprived somebody of something.

    However music, like software, is physically immaterial so although the words “stealing music” make sense, the actuality of the act does not. How can you have “stolen” it if someone else also has a copy?

    The problem is compounded by how music is presented in society – you can listen to it on the radio for freee (advertising revenue is immaterial to a 16 year old). The problem is exactly the same for torrent distribution of TV episodes – in the mind of a 16 year old how can it really be theft if it is broadcast on tv? You can watch it for free when it is broadcast and you can go to your neighbour’s house and watch it.

    These are adult concepts beyond simply understanding “it is against the law” – especially if the law seems particularly stupid and at odds with the reality of listening to “free” radio and watching “free” tv.

    The law needs to change. The music industry needs to try a new angle.

    Just my $0.02

  13. Putting aside the legalities of whether ingonrance is a usable defense, this case just reiterates the problems of copyright associated with physically intangible material.

    Look at the problem through the eyes of a 16 year old – if you steal a car, or a loaf of bread, you can clearly understand how you have deprived somebody of something.

    However music, like software, is physically immaterial so although the words “stealing music” make sense, the actuality of the act does not. How can you have “stolen” it if someone else also has a copy?

    The problem is compounded by how music is presented in society – you can listen to it on the radio for freee (advertising revenue is immaterial to a 16 year old). The problem is exactly the same for torrent distribution of TV episodes – in the mind of a 16 year old how can it really be theft if it is broadcast on tv? You can watch it for free when it is broadcast and you can go to your neighbour’s house and watch it.

    These are adult concepts beyond simply understanding “it is against the law” – especially if the law seems particularly stupid and at odds with the reality of listening to “free” radio and watching “free” tv.

    The law needs to change. The music industry needs to try a new angle.

    Just my $0.02

  14. I think the problem lies in the way society deals with/reacts on music downloading. I'm not a US citizen but i assume the overall mentality isn't so different from the one in Europe. Parents don't care that their kids download music but they're upset if their son would steal some candy in a shop. I don't approve of this, but it is the sad truth. Music/movie/… downloading is accepted as normal behaviour by almost anyone. When you are surrounded by friends, family,… who probably all do the same thing i can understand that some ignorant kids fail to comprehend the "magnitude" of what they are doing. I'm not quite sure how i stand on using deterrence (high fines) as the way to deal with the problem (you punish one kid in a million) + record labels have already earned moooore than enough money on the expense of both artists and listeners. A lot of small labels show that CD-prices can be dropped, thus making downloading less acceptable and less "necessary".

  15. I think the problem lies in the way society deals with/reacts on music downloading. I’m not a US citizen but i assume the overall mentality isn’t so different from the one in Europe. Parents don’t care that their kids download music but they’re upset if their son would steal some candy in a shop. I don’t approve of this, but it is the sad truth. Music/movie/… downloading is accepted as normal behaviour by almost anyone. When you are surrounded by friends, family,… who probably all do the same thing i can understand that some ignorant kids fail to comprehend the “magnitude” of what they are doing. I’m not quite sure how i stand on using deterrence (high fines) as the way to deal with the problem (you punish one kid in a million) + record labels have already earned moooore than enough money on the expense of both artists and listeners. A lot of small labels show that CD-prices can be dropped, thus making downloading less acceptable and less “necessary”.

  16. Excuse me, but I may disagree with the whole thing. I don't believe that people have to be punished for downloading pirated music. At the end of the day, it's not their fault that the songs are available for the to download for free. If those Copyright maniacs really want to prevent people from downloading their music they have to technically block those files, and not make traps for people who download them.

    Plus, let's say that a song is played on the radio, and I decided to record it, will they then have the right to arrest me! It's just the same situation as peer to peer.

  17. Excuse me, but I may disagree with the whole thing. I don’t believe that people have to be punished for downloading pirated music. At the end of the day, it’s not their fault that the songs are available for the to download for free. If those Copyright maniacs really want to prevent people from downloading their music they have to technically block those files, and not make traps for people who download them.
    Plus, let’s say that a song is played on the radio, and I decided to record it, will they then have the right to arrest me! It’s just the same situation as peer to peer.

  18. Excuse me, but I may disagree with the whole thing. I don’t believe that people have to be punished for downloading pirated music. At the end of the day, it’s not their fault that the songs are available for the to download for free. If those Copyright maniacs really want to prevent people from downloading their music they have to technically block those files, and not make traps for people who download them.
    Plus, let’s say that a song is played on the radio, and I decided to record it, will they then have the right to arrest me! It’s just the same situation as peer to peer.

  19. I think record companies were too keen to jump on the 'digital' bandwagon and have exposed themselves unnecessarily. They should have stuck with CD's that were'locked' so that they couldn't be 'ripped'.

    YES! I believe there are millions of teenagers who believe what professional looking sites say on their pages. Just like most Americans believe the Bull-****' that their press writes about the interior political situation.

    Everybody is led by the nose into territory we know nothing about. A couple of years ago EVERYONE was being pressured to take out loans, mortgages etc, with the World Governments happy to go along with the assumption that it was OK. 'Things were good'. OH no they weren't, but I presume you're now saying that EVERYONE who has now LOST their homes because of government encouragement 'Knew' at the time they were doing it that they were committing financial suicide??

    Get your act together (in your mind and in your respect for others naivety) The criminals are the site owners who promote the idea that it's OK to download this stuff, not the person who has been 'hoodwinked'.

    This teenager should have been let off completely on the condition she does a small commercial 'condemning' the sharp practise that 'suckered' her and millions of others just because they wanted to host 'pay-per-view' & 'pay-per-action' advertising which will have earned them probably Millions.

    Pete.

  20. I think record companies were too keen to jump on the ‘digital’ bandwagon and have exposed themselves unnecessarily. They should have stuck with CD’s that were’locked’ so that they couldn’t be ‘ripped’.

    YES! I believe there are millions of teenagers who believe what professional looking sites say on their pages. Just like most Americans believe the Bull-****’ that their press writes about the interior political situation.

    Everybody is led by the nose into territory we know nothing about. A couple of years ago EVERYONE was being pressured to take out loans, mortgages etc, with the World Governments happy to go along with the assumption that it was OK. ‘Things were good’. OH no they weren’t, but I presume you’re now saying that EVERYONE who has now LOST their homes because of government encouragement ‘Knew’ at the time they were doing it that they were committing financial suicide??

    Get your act together (in your mind and in your respect for others naivety) The criminals are the site owners who promote the idea that it’s OK to download this stuff, not the person who has been ‘hoodwinked’.

    This teenager should have been let off completely on the condition she does a small commercial ‘condemning’ the sharp practise that ‘suckered’ her and millions of others just because they wanted to host ‘pay-per-view’ & ‘pay-per-action’ advertising which will have earned them probably Millions.

    Pete.

  21. I believe a 6 y/o may be too ignorant but not a 16 y/o. Give me a break, I mean, I knew what file sharing was when I was 14! And ten years later some 16 y/o wants to say that she doesn't know any better? Please.

  22. I believe a 6 y/o may be too ignorant but not a 16 y/o. Give me a break, I mean, I knew what file sharing was when I was 14! And ten years later some 16 y/o wants to say that she doesn’t know any better? Please.

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