Federal court to review $67,500 music piracy fine

Tenenbaum case review first time court to consider appropriateness of damages against individuals in RIAA copyright cases

For the first time, a federal appellate court has been asked to consider the appropriateness of the damages sought by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against individual copyright infringers.

The case involves Joel Tenenbaum, a Boston University graduate who in 2009 was ordered by a federal jury in Boston to pay $675,000 in damages for pirating 30 songs.

That award was reduced to $67,500 by a district court judge last year.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on Monday heard oral arguments on appeals filed by Tenenbaum, who wants the award reduced even further or thrown out, and by the RIAA, which is seeking a bigger judgment.

The U.S. Department of Justice has also filed an appeal in the case, seeking clarity on the appropriate standard that should be used when computing damages in copyright infringement cases involving individuals.

A three-judge panel of the appellate court will consider the arguments and will likely issue a judgment sometime later this year.

Tenenbaum is one of thousands sued by the RIAA for music piracy over the past few years. But his is only the second case to go to court, and the first one to be heard by a federal appeals court.

The only other similar RIAA music piracy case to go to court involves Jammie Thomas, a Minnesota woman who is fighting a $1.92 million-judgment against her for pirating 24 songs.

That case has already gone to trial three times and is headed for a fourth showdown in court.

Tenenbaum's case goes back to September 2005 when the RIAA first accused him of illegally downloading and distributing copyrighted songs over a file-sharing network.

The RIAA claimed that it had found more than 800 pirated songs on Tenenbaum's computers, though it decided to pursue claims only against a representative sample of 30 of those songs.

Tenenbaum admitted to pirating the songs during the trial. That admission resulted in the original $675,000 verdict against him.

Jason Harrow, a Harvard University law school student who is representing Tenenbaum in the case, said that even the reduced amount of $67,500 is grossly inappropriate.

"We think that $67,500 is too much for sharing 30 songs on a file-sharing network. He caused minimal harm," Harrow contended.

Tenenbaum's appeal asks the appeals court to consider whether the Copyright Act is an appropriate statute to use in infringement cases involving individuals. The statute provides for penalties of up to $150,000 per violation and was originally conceived as a deterrent against commercial infringers.

Tenenbaum's appeal also challenges the judge's instructions to the jury in the last trial. Harrow said the judge did not adequately inform the jury about its obligation to only consider the facts of Tenenbaum's infringement and not about music piracy in general, he said.

The third contention in Tenenbaum's appeal is that $67,500 is simply disproportionate to any damages that his pirating may have caused to the music companies, Harrow said.

Cara Duckworth, am RIAA spokeswoman, expressed confidence in the RIAA's position. "After hearing all the facts of a case, juries are given the authority to send a strong message if they so choose when they find the illegal activity to be particularly egregious and harmful," she said.

"That's what they did here," she said, adding that the jury's decision mirrors Congress' intent to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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