Joel Tenebaum File-Sharing Case Heard at Court of Appeal

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The long-running and controversial file-sharing case of Joel Tenenbaum was back in court yesterday, this time in Boston before the First Circuit Court of Appeal. The issue at stake is the exact amount Tenenbaum will have to pay following his admittance in 2009 that he illegally shared music on the Internet. It currently stands at $67,500, having been slashed last year from a staggering $675,000. Joel says it should be more like $30.

tenenbaumJoel Tenenbaum’s case against the RIAA refuses to go away and has already been dragging on since 2005. In 2009, a jury found Tenenbaum guilty of “willful infringement” and awarded damages of $675,000.

By July 2010, a very different picture began to emerge on the scale of the punishments against the Boston student. Judge Nancy Gertner ruled in Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum that the awarded damages were excessive and unconstitutional. She promptly reduced the jury-awarded damages by 90%.

Although the court had reduced the jury’s award from the original $675,000 ($22,500 per infringed work) to $67,500 ($2,250 per infringed work) for the unlawful sharing of 30 songs, the case was far from over. Tenenbaum slammed the new reduced amount branding it “equally as insane” as the previous year’s $675,000 decision. He went on to lodge an appeal and the RIAA, who were equally unhappy with the decision, followed suit.

Yesterday both parties were back in court, this time in Boston before the First Circuit Court of Appeal. The issue at hand is the exact amount Tenenbaum will be expected to pay for his previously admitted illicit file-sharing.

The hearing took place before a three-judge panel consisting of Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch, Judge Juan R. Torruella, and Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson.

Tenenbaum’s lawyers argued for lower damages (they’re aiming for around $30, $1 per track) on several points, including that the laws applied to the Tenenbaum case were never intended to target non-commercial entities and even if they were, the damages in the case are “unconstitutionally excessive”.

Lawyers for the RIAA argued that damages awards of this scale are there for their deterrent effect and that they were intended all along for infringers such as Tenenbaum.

Massachusetts attorney Joel Sage, who was at the hearing yesterday, reports that although there were some positive signs, in his opinion Tenenbaum faces an uphill battle.

“Chief Judge Lynch clearly had no tolerance for the defense’s contention that ‘no one thought’ the statutory penalties for copyright infringement would ever apply to ‘consumers’,” he wrote.

“She pointed out that the statute appeared to apply to consumers, eliciting a concession from Tenenbaum’s counsel that statutory copyright penalties were not facial unconstitutional,” he continued. “This left the defense with little more than a half-hearted argument that the jury verdict was improper here because the copyright statute originally contemplated damage calculations by judges.”

On the other hand, judges Torruella and Thompson were reportedly “more suspicious” of the record labels’ arguments.

“Judge Torruella asked the labels’ lawyer whether ‘lost sales’ would provide a useful measure of damages, to which he replied that damages should be commensurate with the ‘lost of value of the copyright’. He argued that file-sharing in the aggregate caused enormous economic losses to the labels because it essentially put the music ‘in the public domain’.”

Sage reasonably questions why Tenenbaum should be then held responsible for the onward actions of file-sharers, a question that was never posed to the RIAA lawyer in court.

As reported by, after yesterday’s hearing Tenenbaum was pleased at the support he’d received from people of his generation who share his passion for the legal issues at stake in this case.

Noting that one of the circuit judges actually had to ask how file-sharing programs work, Tenenbaum said: “That’s really the crux of the issue here. That was the center of the whole argument: Was Congress even aware of file sharing’ when it passed the deterrence act?”

A decision in the case is not expected for several months.


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