Evidence-destroying defendant severely sanctioned in P2P file-sharing case

In the case of Arista Records v. Tschirhart, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas has shown little mercy on a defendant accused by record companies of illegal file-sharing.

Knowing that a court order was in place requiring her to turn over her hard drive to be copied, the defendant allegedly used “wiping” software in an attempt to destroy all evidence of her illegal P2P file sharing. In response, the plaintiff record companies moved, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b), for the most severe form of sanctions against the defendant – entry of default against her. The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion, and provided them with 30 days to submit a proposed order spelling out their damages.

Given that the record companies’ expert opined that the defendant had downloaded over 200 sound recordings during 2005, those requested damages will probably be substantial. Statutory damages under the Copyright Act can go as high as $150,000 per work infringed, in the most egregious cases.

In reaching its decision to enter default against the defendant, the court exercised its inherent power to do so, making a note of its obligation to act with “restraint and discretion.” It found that the defendant had acted in bad faith. That bad faith was exacerbated – and the default was further warranted – by the fact that the defendant herself was responsible for the destruction of evidence, that the deletion of the files destroyed the strongest evidence relevant to the plaintiff’s infringement claims, and that less drastic sanctions would not be appropriate.

Not only was the sanction intended to dissuade the plaintiff from destroying evidence in the future, it was intended to make an example out of her. Merely awarding the plaintiffs their attorney’s fees or giving the jury an adverse inference instruction at trial would not have been enough to remedy the situation. Given the defendant’s “blatant contempt” for the court and a “fundamental disregard for the judicial process,” only default would be an adequate punishment and deterrent to others considering similar conduct.

[Hat tip to Techdirt for posting on this case.]

Arista Records, LLC, v. Tschirhart, No. 05-372 (W.D. Tex., August 23, 2006).