Many of us have by now heard of the Minnesota Mom who has been fined $1.5 million for illegally sharing copyrighted music. Many think this is unjust and that we should have a right to rip and share as much as we want. I don’t quite agree. (More)

Let me start with disclaimers so you know where I am coming from, and then I’ll explain why Jammie Thomas-Rasset and so many others are wrong and what’s at stake here.

First: I think the penalty in this case was excessive. But….

Second: It’s not a fine. It’s a jury award. Yup, folks just like you and me have now three times said Thomas-Rasset broke the law. The first jury penalized her $200,000, but that verdict was reversed on technical grounds. The second jury set the penalty at $1.9 million. A judge thought that was too high and lowered it to $52,000. The Record Industry Association of America offered to settle the case for even less – $25,000 – but Thomas-Rasset decided to appeal, and was granted another trial.

This time the jury said, “Okay, 1.5 million.” Yes, that’s excessive … because of a federal statute that authorizes damages as high as $150,000 per infringement. That amount makes sense for a professional CD or DVD piracy firm. It makes no sense for someone uploading 24 songs on a peer-to-peer system. Each of the songs was downloaded multiple times, for a total of 1700 individual infringements. I agree with the Los Angeles Times: Congress should revise this law to give juries more concrete guidance.

Third: I am an author. I depend on copyright laws and royalties to keep food on my table, so I have a personal stake in this one.

What exactly is copyright law? At its most elemental it says you can’t make a copy, any copy, of a copyrighted work without permission and/or paying for it.

That means you can lend a CD to a friend, but you can’t burn a copy of it for him to have. You can record a movie on TV to watch later, but you can’t make copies of it and distribute them. That means you can lend your copy of my book as many times as you want, but you cannot make new copies and sell them. I wrote the book, and I do it for a living.

But you paid for that book and you should be able to do whatever you want with it, right? Sure: if you want to give it away, or toss it in the dump. You can even sell or trade it at a used book store. That one copy.

But you bought only that one copy. You didn’t buy the right to make your own copies. The right to make copies – a copyright – would cost you a lot more than the cover price of a book. Ask any publisher.

When you upload a copyrighted song or video, or make and distribute copies of books, you don’t just hurt some Big Corporation, or even just the musicians, actors, or authors who created the work. (And most of those artists are not as rich as you imagine.) You also hurt editors, agents, designers, sound mixers, printers, truck drivers, and even the janitors at the record company, TV or film studio, or publisher. Their paychecks all come from the income of the copies legally made and legally sold. Illegal copies cost sales, and lost sales cost jobs.

You’re also killing the very arts you claim to love. You don’t want to work for free, and neither do musicians, actors, directors, authors, and other artists. If we can’t make a living from what we do – and many artists can’t – we have to find another job. And many artists do. That means fewer people making art. Keep it up, and pretty soon the only new music you’ll have to listen to will be in the garage down the street or the local bar. And you’ll still pay a cover at the bar.

I’m really tired of this battle. I work hard to create something. New technology may make stealing my and other artists’ work easy, but the technology doesn’t make stealing our work any less immoral.

The jury awards in this case were excessive, but Jammie Thomas-Rasset is a thief, just the same as if she walked up to everyone involved in writing, performing, recording and publishing those songs and took the money out of their wallets. And she should pay for what she stole.