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Judge allows streaming of courtroom video in music piracy case

Ruling promises more attention to RIAA case against doctoral student Joel Tenenbaum

January 15, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Internet users will have the unusual opportunity to view a live video stream of courtroom proceedings in a music piracy case bought against an individual by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), thanks to a ruling yesterday by a U.S. District Court Judge in Boston.

The ruling, by Judge Nancy Gertner, promises to attract even more attention to what is already a high-profile copyright infringement case involving Joel Tenenbaum, a 25-year old doctoral student at Boston University, and the RIAA, which is suing him for illegally downloading and distributing seven songs. The statutes under which Tenenbaum is being sued allow for a maximum fine that could exceed $1 million if he is found guilty of willful infringement.

Though the case goes back several years, it shot into the limelight only late last year when Harvard University law professor Charles Nesson announced he would be representing Tenenbaum in his fight against the RIAA.

In October, Nesson 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.

Nesson also challenged the appropriateness of the massive fines -- ranging from $750 to $150,000 per willful infringement -- available to the music labels under these statutes.

A hearing on Tenenbaum's counterclaims is scheduled for Jan. 22 in U.S. District Court in Boston. Judge Gertner's ruling yesterday authorized Courtroom View Network (CVN) to provide a live coverage of the proceedings to Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which in turn will make the video stream available to the public for free. The Berkman Center will pay the costs of making the content available to the public, according to a statement from Harvard Law School.

Nesson told Computerworld that he asked the court to allow Internet viewers to see the proceedings for several reasons. For one, the coverage will allow a much broader Internet audience "to see what's at stake and just how out of proportion the [RIAA's] response is to the supposed infraction," he said. "It can be very constructive. The copyright issue really is the dividing line between the digital generation and the old guard."

"[Tenenbaum] is a representative of the Internet generation," Nesson said. "We feel we represent the Internet in the courtroom." This is the first time that live Internet streaming has been allowed in a federal courtroom, he said.

Tenenbaum's case is one of several thousand copyright infringement lawsuits the RIAA has said it will continue prosecuting, even though the trade group recently announced that it will stop targeting individuals with new copyright lawsuits.

In a brief document explaining its decision in December, the RIAA said that it would work more closely with Internet service providers to identify alleged copyright infringers, and try to persuade them to stop. Under a so-called graduated response program, the RIAA would notify participating ISPs when it discovers their customers engaging in what it considers to be illegal downloading activities.

Depending on the specific agreements between the RIAA and ISPs, service providers would either forward copyright infringement notices from the RIAA to subscribers, or notify customers about the notices and ask them to stop. The program allows for a series of escalating sanctions, including termination of service for noncompliance.

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