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Target of RIAA lawsuit says music piracy case has been an ordeal

College student Joel Tenenbaum claims trade group wanted to make an example of him

December 19, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - To hear Joel Tenenbaum's version of the story, at least, it isn't hard to see why the Recording Industry Association of America's campaign against music piracy has earned the RIAA so many enemies — perhaps contributing to the trade group's decision this week to stop filing lawsuits against people like Tenenbaum.

Tenenbaum, who turns 25 on Christmas day, is a doctoral student in physics at Boston University. He also is involved in a high-profile legal fight with the RIAA for allegedly downloading and distributing songs belonging to several music labels. The recording companies claim to have discovered more than 800 songs stored illegally in a shared folder on Tenenbaum's computer, although the RIAA's case against him only identifies seven of the songs.

The RIAA says that despite its change in strategy, it doesn't plan to drop existing lawsuits. If found guilty of willful copyright infringement, Tenenbaum faces financial penalties that could exceed $1 million dollars — $150,000 per song, the maximum fine allowed by the federal statute under which he is being sued.

Tenenbaum is being represented in the case by Harvard University law professor Charles Nesson, who in October filed a counterclaim challenging both the constitutionality of the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act and the attempted use of it against Tenenbaum by the music labels.

A hearing on Nesson's counterclaim — which is much broader in scope than previous legal challenges to the constitutionality of the RIAA's antipiracy campaign — is scheduled to be held Jan. 22 in U.S. District Court in Boston.

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Tenenbaum's run-in with the RIAA began in September 2005, when he was an undergrad at Goucher College in Baltimore. His parents, who live in Providence, R.I., received a pre-litigation notice from Sony BMG, Warner Bros. and other recording companies directing them to contact an RIAA "settlement hotline" and pony up $5,250 for alleged online music piracy involving a computer in their home.

There was little opportunity to dispute the amount or to even question the validity of the allegations made in the letter, according to Tenenbaum. The operators manning the RIAA hotline appeared to have little information or authority to do anything more than simply "just sit there and keeping asking you for your MasterCard or Visa number" to make the demanded payment, he said in an interview this week.

"It's scary when you know nothing about copyright law and suddenly there's this letter that says you're infringing the law," Tenenbaum said. "You don't even know if it's a criminal or a civil matter and if you could end up in prison."



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