RIAA suffers big setback in Tenenbaum case

Jury last year says file sharer must pay $675,000, but a federal judge now calls that excessive and reduces damages to $67,500.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
2 min read

The music industry suffered another high-profile legal setback on Friday when a federal judge reduced a damages award against a file sharer found liable for copyright violations.

A jury last year ordered Joel Tenenbaum, a Boston University student, to pay $675,000, after being found liable of copyright infringement, to the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the four largest record companies. But U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner ruled that the amount was "unconstitutionally excessive," according to a report in Boston.com, the Web site for The Boston Globe.

Tenenbaum must now pay one tenth the original sum, or $67,500. Gertner's decision is another indication that judges just aren't satisfied with the damage amounts juries are allowed to set under federal guidelines.

In January, Michael Davis, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, chopped a $1.92 million award down to $54,000 in the case of Jammie Thomas-Rasset, the first person to defend herself against an RIAA copyright complaint in front of a jury.

Corynne McSherry, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocate of technology companies and Internet users, said what's interesting to her is that Gertner came to her decision after first studying the legislation behind federal rules on statutory damages.

"The court has substituted its judgment for that of 10 jurors as well as Congress."

"Gertner found there is quite a bit of evidence that Congress did not intend statutory provisions to be applied this way," McSherry said. "She concluded that the [original] damages award went far beyond what Congress intended or contemplated."

McSherry said that finding people liable for huge awards when they didn't attempt to profit from the distribution of the songs is unreasonable. "Both Davis and Gertner," McSherry said, "have found that these awards are fundamentally out of whack."

In a statement, the RIAA, which ceased filing copyright complaints against individuals in 2008, lashed out at the judge's decision.

"The court has substituted its judgment for that of 10 jurors as well as Congress," the RIAA wrote. "For nearly a week, a federal jury carefully considered the issues involved in this case, including the profound harm suffered by the music community precisely because of the activity that the defendant admitted engaging in."

Tenenbaum told the Globe that he's happy the award was reduced but he said he still doesn't have enough money to cover the $67,500. Ben Sheffner, an entertainment lawyer and noted blogger on copyright issues, reminded readers of his blog that Tennebaum could have walked away for far less if he had agreed to the RIAA's original settlement offer.

Sheffner wrote: "Keep in mind that while the reduced award of $67,500--$2,250 multiplied by the 30 songs on which the record labels sought damages--is certainly better from Tenenbaum's perspective than $675,000, he could have easily settled long ago for $4,000."