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Appeals court blocks Internet streaming order in RIAA music piracy case

Judges cite 1996 camera ban in overturning decision to allow webcast of hearing in lawsuit against college student Joel Tenenbaum

April 16, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In a victory for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a federal appeals court in Boston today overturned a ruling by a trial judge that would have allowed some courtroom proceedings in a high-profile music piracy case to be streamed live over the Internet.

In its decision, a three-judge panel at the First Circuit Court of Appeals said that allowing the proposed webcast of a hearing in the case to go forward would have violated a 1996 ban on the use of cameras in the circuit's courtrooms. The panel also said that U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner had overstepped her authority in granting permission for the live streaming in January.

"In order to determine whether webcasts of civil proceedings are permissible in a federal district court, the logical starting point is the district court's local rules," Circuit Judge Bruce Selya wrote as part of the appeals court's opinion. Those rules clearly forbid the use of any camera or broadcasting device inside courtrooms, Selya said, adding that Gertner's interpretation of the rules was "unprecedented and, in our view, palpably incorrect."

The piracy case involves a 25-year old doctoral student at Boston University named Joel Tenenbaum, who was sued for copyright infringement by the RIAA in August 2007. The trade group claims to have found more than 800 songs stored illegally in a shared folder on Tenenbaum's computer, although the lawsuit only identifies seven of those songs. If found guilty, Tenenbaum could be fined $150,000 per song, which would amount to more than $1 million.

The case is similar to many others pursued by the RIAA over the past few years, before the group said in December that it would stop filing piracy lawsuits. But the suit against Tenenbaum shot into the public spotlight last fall, when Harvard law professor Charles Nesson said that he would defend the college student.

As part of his defense efforts, Nesson asked Gertner to allow a non-evidentiary hearing that was originally scheduled for Jan. 22 to be streamed live over the Web. In an interview in January, Nesson claimed that the streaming could be "very constructive" and that it would allow a broad audience "to see what's at stake and just how out of proportion the [RIAA's] response is to the supposed infraction."

Gertner approved Nesson's motion, noting the keen public interest in the case. Her ruling authorized the Courtroom View Network to provide live coverage of the proceedings to Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which in turn would make the video stream available to the public free of charge.

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