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Supreme Court rejects case on fines for illegal Internet music downloads

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to take a case concerning big fines for illegal downloads of music on the Internet. A teenager had sought lower fines, claiming she didn't know it was illegal.

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The US Supreme Court is seen in this October 1 file photo in Washington, DC.

Paul J. Richards/AFP Photo/File/Newscom

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The US Supreme Court declined on Monday to take up a case examining the extent to which those accused of illegally downloading copyrighted material from the Internet may claim the protection of an "innocent infringement" provision.

The issues arose in the case of a Texas teenager who was sued by an association of record companies for allegedly downloading 37 copyrighted songs onto her computer without paying for them.

Under the law, 16-year-old Whitney Harper faced a fine of up to $750 for each downloaded song. She argued that she was not aware that the file-sharing program on her computer was dealing in stolen property. She said she thought the songs could be downloaded for free, just like listening to the radio on the Internet.

In instances when a song is downloaded by someone who did not know she was infringing a copy right, the law provides for a $200 fine per song. Whitney admitted that she downloaded the music, but she said her actions were innocent and that her fine should be $200 per song.

A federal judge agreed. But a panel of the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

The record companies had provided adequate legal notice to consumers that they faced sanctions for unauthorized use of the recordings, the Fifth Circuit ruled. The companies posted copyright notices on CD containers.

Whitney’s lawyers argued that posting warning notices on CD covers did not provide actual notice to Whitney, who was downloading the songs from the Internet onto her home computer.

Nonetheless, the appeals court ruled that the CD notification was enough to provide Whitney and others with fair warning of the risks of infringing the record companies’ rights. It said that Whitney could not claim that she was an innocent infringer.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case allows the Fifth Circuit’s narrow interpretation of the “innocent infringer” provision to stand.

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