Tenenbaum hit with $675,000 fine for music piracy

Student slapped with $22,500 fine for each of 30 songs he admitted to illegally downloading

In another big victory for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) a federal jury has fined Boston University student Joel Tenenbaum $675,000 for illegally downloading and distributing 30 copyrighted songs.

In finding Tenenbaum guilty of willful copyright infringement, the Boston court's jury fined the 25 year-old doctoral student a sum of $22,500 for each illegally downloaded song, far less than the maximum statutory fine of $150,000 per song that the jury could have hit him with.

The damages awarded today were about a third less than the massive $1.92 million fine that was assessed against Minnesota native Jammie Thomas-Rasset in a similar music piracy case that was decided in June.

As with Tenenbaum, Thomas-Rasset too was found liable for illegally downloading 24 copyright songs. But in her case, the jury awarded the music companies which had sued her, $80,000 per infringed song.

The verdict in the Tenenbaum case came after a brief trial that began Monday and ended yesterday when Tenenbaum admitted under direct questioning that he had illegally downloaded and distributed all of the songs at the center of the case.

Tenenbaum was sued for copyright infringement by the RIAA in 2007. His case shot to prominence last fall when Harvard law school professor Charles Nesson said he would represent him in his fight with the RIAA. The RIAA claimed to have found more than 800 illegally downloaded songs in a shared folder on his computer, but the case focused on a representative sample of just 30 of those songs.

Even before Tenenbaum's admission, some following the case had predicted that he had little chance of prevailing based on a pre-trail ruling by Judge Nancy Gertner. In that ruling, Gertner essentially forbid Tenenbaum from asserting a "fair use" defense in arguing his case.

That doctrine allows for the use of copyrighted material without permission from the rights holders in some specific circumstances including transformative use or for nonprofit academic purposes.

In her ruling on Monday, Gertner said that Tenenbaum had not provided any "hard proof" to show how his alleged illegal music distribution constituted fair use. She had noted that Tenenbaums interpretation of fair-use laws was so broad "it would swallow the copyright protections that Congress has created."

Ray Beckerman, a N.Y-based attorney who has represented several clients in RIAA lawsuits, called todays verdict "ridiculous," but "not surprising in view of the way the trial was incorrectly handled."

Beckerman who has been critical of the way the case has been handled from the beginning. None of the key issues relevant to the case were touched upon or explored during the case by the defendants team, the RIAA lawyers or Judge Gertner, he said.

"Together they did an abysmal, pathetic job of crystallizing the issues properly and of disposing of the issues properly," Beckerman said. "I'm sure the judge will reduce the verdict, but I have no idea to what she will reduce it. She has historically given many favorable rulings to the RIAA, more than any other judge in the country."

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Jaikumar Vijayan

Computerworld (US)
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