Court of Appeals Orders Student to Pay $675K File-Sharing Damages

After a tortuous route through the U.S. legal system, a court has decided that a punishment first handed down to a file-sharer in 2009 should stand. The First Circuit Court of Appeals said it had not hesitated in its decision to uphold the $675,000 damages award against a Boston student who shared 30 songs online, adding that it is this kind of behavior Congress was trying to deter when it amended the Copyright Act.

A little short of a decade ago, in 2004 when the long-since dead file-sharing software Kazaa was the next big thing, a Boston student called Joel Tenenbaum used the tool to download and share music online.

With his “fair use” defense kicked out hours before his trial, a week later a jury decided that Tenenbaum had engaged in “willful infringement” and awarded the RIAA $22,500 for each of the 30 songs listed in the case.

What followed was years of legal wrangling, with a yo-yo’ing of the damages award and a 2011 decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals that the original decision should stand.

Tenenbaum then tried to take his case to the Supreme Court, arguing the damages awarded against him were unconstitutional. In May last year that request was denied.

Following yet another hearing in this case that refuses to die, the First Circuit Court of Appeals decided yesterday that the penalty handed down in 2009 should indeed stand.

“Joel Tenenbaum illegally downloaded and distributed music for several years. A group of recording companies sued Tenenbaum, and a jury awarded damages of $675,000, representing $22,500 for each of thirty songs whose copyright Tenenbaum violated,” Judge Howard wrote.

“Tenenbaum appeals the award, claiming that it is so large that it violates his constitutional right to due process of law. We hold that the award did not violate Tenenbaum’s right to due process, and we affirm.”

The Court said that Tenenbaum had downloaded and shared copyrighted music without permission from 1999 to at least 2007 knowing it to be illegal, had pressed on regardless, later dening his actions.

“On appeal, Tenenbaum invites us to assume that he is ‘the most heinous of noncommercial copyright infringers.’ We need not go so far as to accept his offer. The evidence of Tenenbaum’s copyright infringement easily justifies the conclusion that his conduct was egregious,” the Court wrote.

“Much of this behavior was exactly what Congress was trying to deter when it amended the Copyright Act. Therefore, we do not hesitate to conclude that an award of $22,500 per song, an amount representing 15% of the maximum award for willful violations and less than the maximum award for non-willful violations, comports with due process.”

Tenenbaum has thus far declined to comment on the decision.

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