Judge refuses to set aside $675K fine in music piracy case

Judge says fine is not disproportional or unreasonable

In the latest twist in a saga that has dragged on for seven years, a federal judge on Thursday refused to set aside a $675,000 fine that a jury had imposed on a former Boston University student for illegally downloading 30 songs.

In a 12-page ruling Thursday, Judge Rya Zobel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts concluded that the jury came to the right decision and she denied Joel Tenenbaum's motion to have the fine reduced both on common law grounds and on constitutional grounds.

"A damage award must stand unless it is "grossly excessive, inordinate, shocking to the conscience of the court, or so high that it would be a denial of justice to permit it to stand," Zobel wrote, quoting from a ruling in a previous case.

The $675,000 award fits into none of these categories because Tenenbaum could have been hit with a much higher fine, Zobel noted. The copyright statute under which Tenenbaum was sued provides for statutory fines of up to $150,000 per infringement. The jury's award of $22,500 per infringement was at the low end of the range for willful infringement, she said.

"The jury's damage award was not so excessive as to merit remittitur," Zobel wrote. The fact that the award is well under the statutory maximum means the award is neither "wholly disproportional," nor "obviously unreasonable," she said. "It does not offend due process," she said in denying Tenenbaum's claim that the fine is constitutionally excessive.

The ruling is sure to prompt another round of appeals from Tenenbaum, who has been embroiled in a fight with the music industry since 2005, when he was first accused by six music recording companies of downloading and distributing hundreds of copyrighted songs using file-sharing networks.

The recording companies ended up suing Tenenbaum over a representative sample of just 30 of the songs they alleged he pirated.

A jury in Boston that heard the case in 2009 awarded the music companies $675,000 in damages after a five-day trial during which Tenenbaum confessed to illegally downloading the 30 songs over peer-to-peer networks.

When Tenenbaum appealed the size of the verdict, federal Judge Nancy Gertner, who originally heard the case but has since retired, reduced the jury amount to $67,500, based on constitutional grounds. In her ruling, Gertner noted that even the reduced amount was "severe" and "harsh" but would send a strong message to those seeking to pirate music via P2P networks.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which is representing the six music labels in the lawsuit, promptly appealed Gertner's decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

The appeals court upheld the RIAA's claims and said that Gertner had erred procedurally when she reduced the fine on constitutional grounds. The court held that Gertner should have first considered the issue on common law grounds before considering the constitutionality of the fine.

The appellate court then remanded the case back to the district court in Boston where it was assigned to Zobel, who delivered her ruling Thursday.

In a statement, an RIAA spokeswoman said the trade body is "pleased with the District Court's decision."

Tenenbaum could not be reached for comment at deadline.

Ray Beckerman, a New York-based lawyer who has represented individuals in RIAA lawsuits and filed an amicus brief in the Tenenbaum cause, expressed disappointment over Zobel's ruling.

"I think the decision was spottily reasoned. I think it demonstrates circular reasoning," on the judge's part, Beckerman said. "She is definitely wrong on the law," Beckerman said, noting that Zobel's decision says little about Gertner's previous rulings in the case.

"This judge didn't even refer to the previous judge. She doesn't seem to understand the facts of the case," Beckerman said adding that he plans to file another amicus brief in the case.

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.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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