US judge cuts penalty in song-sharing case

A US federal judge yesterday drastically trimmed a $675 000 (R5.1

million) verdict against a Boston University graduate student who was found

liable for illegally downloading and sharing 30 songs online, saying the jury

damage award against a person who gained no financial benefit from his copyright

infringement is “unconstitutionally excessive.”

Joel Tenenbaum, from Providence, Rhode Island, was sued by some of

the largest music companies who said he violated copyright rules.

He admitted in court to downloading songs between 1999 and 2007.

The jury found him liable and assessed the damage award last July.

His lawyers appealed, calling the award “severe” and “oppressive”

and asking the court for a new trial or reduced damages.

Judge Nancy Gertner yesterday cut the damage award to $67 500 –

three times the statutory minimum – and said the new the amount “not only

adequately compensates the plaintiffs for the relatively minor harm that

Tenenbaum caused them; it sends a strong message that those who exploit

peer-to-peer networks to unlawfully download and distribute copyrighted works

run the risk of incurring substantial damages awards.”

Gertner also denied Tenenbaum’s request for a new trial.

“There is no question that this reduced award is still severe, even

harsh,” Gertner said, noting that the law used by the jury to penalise Tenenbaum

did not offer any meaningful guidance on the question of what amount of damages

was appropriate.

Gertner said: “Significantly, this amount is more than I might have

awarded in my independent judgment. But the task of determining the appropriate

damages award in this case fell to the jury, not the court.”

Gertner warned that the fact that she reduced the award does not

mean that Tenenbaum’s actions are condoned or that wholesale file-sharing in

comparable circumstances is lawful.

Still, Tenenbaum said he was happy the court recognised that the

jury award was unconstitutional and trimmed it to about $2 250 per song, but he

said he also cannot afford paying the reduced damages.

Tenenbaum said: “I still don’t have $70 000 and $2 000 per song

still seems ridiculous in light of the fact that you can buy them for 99 cents

on iTunes. I mean, $675 000 was also absurd.”

But the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was not

sympathetic, saying that the group will appeal the court ruling.

The RIAA said: “With this decision, the court has substituted its

judgment for that of 10 jurors as well as Congress. 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.”

Gertner also said that her decision to trim the punitive damage

award is in line with previous court decisions to curb excessive jury awards

that targeted businesses.

Gertner said: “For many years, businesses complained that punitive

damages imposed by juries were out of control, were unpredictable, and imposed

crippling financial costs on companies.

“In a number of cases, the federal courts have sided with these

businesses, ruling that excessive punitive damages awards violated the

companies’ right to due process of law. These decisions have underscored the

fact that the constitution protects not only criminal defendants from the

imposition of ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ but also civil defendants facing

arbitrarily high punitive awards.”

Gertner’s decision comes more than five months after a federal

judge in Minneapolis also drastically reduced a nearly $2 million verdict

against a woman found liable last year of sharing 24 songs over the internet,

calling the jury’s penalty “monstrous and shocking”.

US District Judge Michael Davis also reduced the $1.92 million

penalty a jury imposed against Jammie Thomas-Rasset to $2 250 per song, or about

$54 000.

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