Appeals Court Reinstates $675,000 File-Sharing Decision Against Joel Tenenbaum

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the earlier decision of a U.S. District Court in the long-running file-sharing case between Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Boston student Joel Tenenbaum. The appeal court ruled that District Court should not have considered constitutional matters. Instead, it could have reduced the amount of damages awarded and given Sony a chance to request a new trial.

Joel Tenenbaum’s fight with the RIAA has been dragging on now for six years. In 2009, a jury found Tenenbaum guilty of “willful infringement” and awarded damages of $675,000.

But in July 2010, the severe punishment handed out to the Boston student was in the spotlight.

Judge Nancy Gertner ruled in Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum that the awarded damages were both excessive and unconstitutional. She slashed the jury-awarded damages by 90% to $67,500 – $2,250 for each of 30 infringed works.

Unhappy, Tenenbaum lodged an appeal, as did the RIAA, and in April this year both parties were back in court before Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch, Judge Juan R. Torruella, and Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson at the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Boston.

In its decision released yesterday, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals reversed U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner’s decision. Although the appeal court did not necessarily disagree with the response to the constitutional question, it found that Judge Nancy Gertner should not have considered it.

“Citing the doctrine of ‘constitutional avoidance,’ which dictates that courts should avoid tackling constitutional issues unnecessarily, the court found that Judge Gertner should first have considered using a procedure called ‘remittitur‘,” explains EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry.

“Under this procedure, she could have lowered the damages amount, but, if the record companies chose not to accept the new amount, they could have asked for a new trial.”

“A decision on a constitutional due process question was not necessary, was not inevitable, had considerable impermissible consequences, and contravened the rule of constitutional avoidance,” wrote Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch in her decision.

“That rule had more than its usual import in this case because there were a number of difficult constitutional issues which should have been avoided but were engaged.”

Noting that this has been a difficult case, the Court found against Tenenbaum and in favor of the plaintiffs, Sony BMG.

“We have, inter alia, rejected Tenenbaum’s arguments that the Copyright Act is unconstitutional under Feltner, 523 U.S. 340, that the Act exempts so-called ‘consumer copying’ infringement from liability and damages, that statutory damages under the Act are unavailable without a showing of actual harm, that the jury’s instructions were in error, and his various trial error claims,” wrote Judge Lynch.

“We vacate the district court’s due process damages ruling and reverse the reduction of the jury’s statutory damages award. We reinstate the jury’s award of damages and remand for consideration of plaintiff’s motion for common law remittitur based on excessiveness.”

So yet again, in common with the case against Jamie Thomas, Joel Tenenbaum’s case grinds on while serving no obvious purpose.

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