Grossly Excessive Penalties in the Battle Against Illegal File-Sharing: The Troubling Effects of Aggregating Minimum Statutory Damages for Copyright Infringement
35 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2005
The recent copyright-infringement lawsuits targeting individual file-sharers have in common the following facts: a statutory damage award with a substantial punitive component, a large number of like-kind violations, and fairly low reprehensibility as assessed under the relevant Supreme Court test. The substantive due process principles laid out by the Court in BMW v. Gore provide a roadmap for evaluating whether the aggregated punitive effect of these awards has become unconstitutionally excessive.
In this paper, I argue that there is a constitutional right to not have a highly punitive statutory damage award stacked hundreds or thousands of times over for similar, low-reprehensibility misconduct. I point to the rationale behind criminal law's single-larceny doctrine, identify the concept of wholly proportionate reprehensibility, and use this to explain why the massive aggregation of statutory damage awards can violate substantive due process.
I conclude that massively aggregated awards of even the minimum statutory damages for illegal file-sharing will impose huge penalties and can be constitutionally infirm like the punitive damage award of Gore itself. Yet practical and institutional reasons will likely make this norm underenforced by the courts, pointing to Congress as the actor that should modify copyright law to remove the possibility of grossly excessive punishment.
Keywords: grossly excessive, substantive due process, BMW, Gore, punitive damages, civil penalties, statutory damages, file sharing, copyright, underenforcement
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation