Music downloading penalties are harsher than arson, theft, or starting a dogfighting ring

Jesus Diaz looks at the $1.92m fine Jammie Thomas faces for downloading 1700 songs and compares it to the penalties for other crimes in America (valuing jail time at $50,233, the median US household income in 2007):
• Child abduction: Fine of $25,000 and up to three years in prison, which can be accounted as $50,233 per year (that was the median household income in 2007, probably down because of the economic crisis). Total: $175,699.

• Steal the CDs: A total of $275,000, $52,500 fine for the CDs.

• Steal a lawnmower from your neighbour: A total of $375,000.

• Burn someone's house while playing The Doors: Another $375,000.

• Stalk a Gizmodo editor (yes, you know who you are): A Class 4 felony that will result in just $175,000.

• Start a dogfighting ring: $50,000.

• Murder someone on the second degree, a Class 1 felony: $778,495, which accounts for a $25,000 fine and four to 15 years in prison.

Second Degree Murder and Six Other Crimes Cheaper than Pirating Music (via O'Reilly Radar)


  1. • Burn someone’s house while playing The Doors: Another $375,000.

    does this mean if you play the doors it is a bigger crime!!!!1?

  2. It’s an interesting concept, but surely the “cost” of prison time to the individual is far more stringent than merely lost wages? Even if we stick to purely economic issues, the stigma of having been in prison — which affect future earnings and job potential, among many other things — plus parole attendance and attendant lost wages, the loss of that many years on your raise scale, and care for the long-lasting psych and physical effects have a material cost.

  3. Not to be a killjoy, but there’s a difference between a fine paid in part of criminal penalty and damages awarded as the result of a civil dispute.

    For example, while part of the criminal penalty for burning down your neighbour’s house might be a 375K fine, you neighbour could in addition file a civil suit against you and claim the cost of the house plus in damages.

    That’s not to say that 800K per song shared is a reasonable sum to claim in damages, but if you can get the court to award you that then why not?

  4. For a long time money crime has been more important than crime against another person. No surprise there.

  5. Big whopping fines…comparable to losing your house for growing a few illegal plants, yes?

    mr Foo: these are fines, are they not? for damages would imply , well, recompense for actual damage: but IIRC they need not prove such, as the Legislators have pre-determined (pre-judged? pre-judiced?)that particular question.

    Nice of the “independent judiciary” to roll over for them….

    In the USA, there’s no such thing as an “excessive” monetary damage award, so long as the Legislature says so, I guess: just like there’s no such thing in US political discourse as “excessive” profits.

  6. And in a few years, there shall be mandatory minimum prison sentences prescribed for this behavior…but the tax on the Corps. shan’t be raised to pay for it! Maybe though a cut-back on State-provided income supports (if the US still provides such, to any one other than the mega-rich).

  7. One question: Does the $375k for Arson with Doors include the fee for public performance rights?

    Those numbers are as manufactured as the numbers RIAA dreams up. The only “real” figure I see is the $1.92m, which was awarded by a jury of peers to slap that ….. back into the stone age.

    (No, I do not support J.T. She FUBAR’d what could have been a pivotal victory against RIAA by lying and destroying evidence, getting caught, and appealing it.)

  8. Yes, we all know that ‘downloading’ is a ‘crime’, blah, blah, blah.
    Jammie Thomas was found guilty of copyright infringement by a jury. The jury, made up of her fellow citizens, decided the penalty based on information given to them by the plaintiff.
    Jammie Thomas is a victim of gross stupidity on multiple levels and very bad representation but she was never in the right.

  9. but you forget that for every person who downloads a song from you that’s one sale that they definitely lost! So if you share a song with 100 people that’s 100 sales lost, and therefore far greater than simply stealing a CD.

    is it really 800k per song? put it in perspective- it costs roughly $200 000 to record a whole album

  10. Sadly the notion that your time is only valuable for earning wages is ridiculous. Seeing your family, being able to move freely … this report assumes that they are worth nothing.

    If this report was accurate I should be able to pay them there anual salary to spend a year in prison.

  11. Agree with 5, the thing being money crime has a significant, pernicious system effect, much like messing with the post. It’s kind of awful when as an individual citizen / subject you work this out, but it is a door to a better understanding of the realities behind our legal system.

    That said, the music companies are wankers. I’d bore everyone again with it, how I don’t buy any music any more, but I won’t.

    Especially since they cut UK access to Pandora. Don’t get me started!

  12. It’s been kind of said, but it needs to be really said:

    Prison time is not equatable to money. It is certainly not equatable to someone’s lost income. Aside from the above-mentioned long-term loss of wages, it involves pschological, and often sexual, torture, and potential permanant psychological damage.

    Our prisons are really really not good people. It’s one of the biggest black eyes on this country. Anyway, I realize this is about the absurdity of downloading charges, so I’ll be quiet now.

  13. Baldhead@9,

    That is just not true.

    The record companies were never guaranteed any sales. If I download a track for free, it does not follow that I will actually (or even potentially) pay money for the same track. The price I pay (eg. £0.00) plays a large part in the transaction potential.

  14. Isn’t it time that every government and justice system in the world told record companies to go fuck themselves, hard?

  15. Cory,

    There is no denying the egregiousness of the music industry’s methods nor the injustice of the fine, but Mr. Diaz does the cause of reform no favor with nonsensical posts. As has been said above, there is simply no credible conflating of time served in prison with any amount of money. This is the very bedrock of our system of criminal justice and the reason that while civil awards can be won on the preponderance of the evidence criminal convictions must be based on absence of reasonable doubt.

    The goal of IP reform must include greater critical thinking for all involved, not just a substitution of one party’s wild rhetoric with one’s own.


    Robert Link, aka phaedral

  16. That’s not to say that 800K per song shared is a reasonable sum to claim in damages, but if you can get the court to award you that then why not?

    If your neighbor wronged you and you could burn down his house… and get away with it, then why not?

    Because it’s wrong, and you know it’s wrong while you’re doing it, in answer to both questions.

  17. Phaedral @15: that’s exactly how you lose a political campaign. Be all reasonable and rational, and you WILL lose; be as wild as you can, and you might actually achieve something.

    John Kerry was all reasonable and rational, and meanwhile the swiftboaters won the election for GWB.
    Internet users have been all rational and reasonable for 20 years (“yeah, they’ll never get support for such a crazy law…”,”yeah, they will realize it’s a bad move… “,”yeah, they’ll never sue anyone…”,”yeah, they’ll never award so much money…”) and meanwhile the MAFIAA cartels were pushing wild rhetoric all the way to the bank.

    I say it’s hight time for wild rhetoric and more. Otherwise, we’ll all reasonably follow the wonderfully reasonable laws that reasonable juries will use to award these reasonable penalties.

  18. Music & Movie cos & stars: They only become what we make them.

    On the plus side, they (the record/movie cos) WILL disappear if you ignore them…so Walter Billington’s on the right track…

  19. I’d agree that the penalty is harsh, *but* the comparison is wrong.

    1700 songs were downloaded, 24 were litigated on from 17 artists.

    This isn’t like stealing *a* lawnmower, its like stealing 24 lawnmowers from 17 neighbors.

    Do I think that the a statutory range of $750-150k per song is too much? Yes. Do I think this case is ridiculous, yes.

    But there were 24 offenses against 17 parties, not 1 single crime.

  20. Equating a year’s jail time with a year’s lost income is specious and facile, to put it very mildly.

  21. @9 to be fair, no one except huge artists are making $200k records anymore. Hell, I produced a record for 8k that sold 100,000 copies. The record companies are being stingy AND trying to gobble up every penny they can.

  22. it seems to me that many companies (and some ppl) confuse potential earnings with actual earnings. if business could be more focused on what they are actually able to sell and not what they hope to sell then i suspect they’d be much happier, as would we.

    some ppl will pay for media, some wont. money can still be made.

  23. So if you are suspected of pirating songs you had better kill all witnesses and burn down the building of the record company to destroy all evidence since you’ll get off easier even if caught.

  24. @phaedral (#16)

    As has been said above, there is simply no credible conflating of time served in prison with any amount of money.

    Actually, in economics terms, you can. You simply explain the range of prison experiences to the person in question, and then ask how much they would accept in exchange for a year of prison. The price at which they don’t care whether they go to prison or stay free would be the price of a year in prison.

    Not many people would exchange a year of prison for $200 cash, and I think just about everyone would do so for, say, $10B. The variability between people is too high to arrive at a “reasonable” figure that means anything, and such a figure would certainly be higher than $50K. But I don’t think the question is meaningless.

  25. The Third Wave et al. have taught us that the world economy will shift from being material-based to being information-based, much as the Industrial Revolution shifted it from agriculture-based to manufacturing-based.

    It follows that if information is free, then the world economy will massively deflate. This obviously must be prevented from happening at any cost. Obvious to those who currently hold economic power, that is.

  26. Internet users have been all rational and reasonable for 20 years

    Stop, stop, let me catch my breath!

  27. The median income is not the right value to use. If you really want to do this right, you’d figure out what the median amount of money is that someone would pay to stay out of jail for a year.

  28. If you really want to do this right, you’d figure out what the median amount of money is that someone would pay to stay out of jail for a year.

    Or, perhaps more precisely, the number of years in prison someone would trade to erase a pending judgment against them.

    That will naturally vary with the size of the judgement. Someone might well spend a year in prison to void a $100,000 judgement – an amount they could pay, but which would likely bankrupt them – but nevertheless wouldn’t trade 10 years for a $1,000,000 fine.

    Look at Jammie Thomas’s situation, for example – she’s facing a $1,920,000 judgement. But would she trade that for Diaz’s proposed equivalence, nearly 40 years in prison?

    Seems unlikely. I mean, there’s probably no way she can ever actually pay $1.92 million – but it’s not like they’re going to put her in jail if she doesn’t.

    I personally can’t imagine voluntarily doing 40 years in prison for any amount of money – and certainly not just to take a legal judgement that I’ll never actually pay off the books- so the proposed equivalence seems more than a bit silly.

  29. Whoever pays the lawmaker forges the law.

    It is not based on reason, justice, fairness, morality and philosophy. It’s all about the money.

    If someone steals a CD that is a big crime because it hurts the RIAA, Record Labels, Executives, Agents, Managers, Etc.

  30. I want to correct the “lost sale” mantra that appears, over and over, in any discussion regarding downloading.

    The lost sale is when you listen to the music without a license to do so. That’s the lost sale. Every time you listen to a purloined track, if you do so without having paid for the privilege, it’s a lost sale. It’s a license. That’s how a license works; listen, or watch, with a proper, paid, license.

  31. Arkizzle-m i was being facetious. Record compnies seem to assume that every download equals a lost sale, ignoring (I doubt they are forgetting) that it simply doesn’t work that way. At best 5% of download represent lost sales with the rest being people who liked something good enough to download, were just checking it out, or even downloaded by accident.

  32. Anon @36: That’s the kind of hyperbolic mis-use of language that makes this subject such a drag to debate. The tune with the highest played count on my iTunes playlist has a count of 27. If I had bought that tune legally, then I would have bought it only once but been able to listen to it until my ears bled. If I had pirated it that would only be one lost sale — by any reasonable use of the language — not 27. If I listened to it from now until the sun swells to a red giant, it would still only be one lost sale.

  33. Anon #38: What’s your point? You’re correct. Your paid license allows you to listen to the tune as many times as you like. That’s the license.

    If you don’t pay, every time you listen. it’s a “lost sale”.

  34. You’ve made a great point about the draconian nature of the War on Sharing. I would only like to suggest one additional way you can help defeat it: reject the propaganda term “pirate” for sharing copies.
    That term says that sharing is like armed robbery, murder and kidnaping; that exaggeration helps them justify extreme penalties like the one levied against Jamie Thomas.

    See and

  35. “The lost sale is when you listen to the music without a license to do so. That’s the lost sale.”

    That may be RIAA interpretation of “lost sale”, but in economics, it just doesn’t make any sense. The consumer makes a decision to buy based on the use value / price ratio of the product (and that alone).

    “Every time you listen to a purloined track, if you do so without having paid for the privilege, it’s a lost sale.”

    Nope. It is only a lost sale if the ratio use value / price is high enough for him to buy it, as he would do if he were prevented from downloading. But if the ratin use value / price is not high enough, he will not buy it even if he is prevented from downloading it.

    “It’s a license. That’s how a license works; listen, or watch, with a proper, paid, license.”

    In the middle ages, feudal lords used to demand royalties for crossing their domains. Sadly, their arguments were similar to these. This is feudalism, not market economy…

  36. #24 what if the 9000 ipods were all full of illegally downloaded music? all the poor people in the world couldn’t afford the quadrillions in fines

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