Judge Slams RIAA, $675k Fine Ruled Unconstitutional

Another break happened today in the RIAA's case against Boston University student Joel Tenenbaum, as the $675k fine was reduced by 90%. The judge in the case criticised the RIAA and held that the jury's damages were unconstitutional. Even the reduced fine is described as "severe, even harsh" by the District Judge.

In the US there have been two major file-sharing cases against individuals that have gone to trial. In both cases the RIAA was initially awarded hundreds and thousands of dollars in damages, but in both cases these were slashed on appeal.

In the RIAA’s case against Jamie Thomas, the jury-awarded damages were reduced significantly as the excessive damages were ruled to be unconstitutional. Today, the same thing has happened with the case against Boston University student Joel Tenenbaum.

The ruling issued by District Judge Nancy Gertner states that the constitutional issues are clear, and that attempting to avoid the constitutional challenges (that the damages are excessive in proportion to the crime) by reducing the damages would be the best way to handle these.

The verdict comes as no surprise to many, and may even come as a relief to the RIAA, who have faced some negative publicity over the damages awarded. It’s unclear, though, if this modification will stand, as the RIAA will have to accept it. If they don’t, a retrial will be called.

Judge Gertner finds a retrial likely, stating in the judgment: “The plaintiffs in this case, however, made it abundantly clear that they were, to put it mildly, going for broke. They stated in open court that they likely would not accept a remitted award.”

“The Constitution protects not only criminal defendants from the imposition of ‘cruel and unusual punishments’, but also civil defendants facing arbitrarily high punitive awards,” Gertner added.

The meat of the subject can be found on page 6, though.

I reduce the jury’s award to $2,250 per infringed work, three times the statutory minimum, for a total award of $67,500. Significantly, this amount is more than I might have awarded in my independent judgment. But the task of determining the appropriate damages award in this case fell to the jury, not the Court. I have merely reduced the award to the greatest amount that the Constitution will permit given the facts of this case.

There is no question that this reduced award is still severe, even harsh. It not only adequately compensates the plaintiffs for the relatively minor harm that Tenenbaum caused them; it sends a strong message that those who exploit peer-to-peer networks to unlawfully download and distribute copyrighted works run the risk of incurring substantial damages awards. Tenenbaum’s behavior, after all, was hardly exemplary. The jury found that he not only violated the law, but did so willfully.

Reducing the jury’s $675,000 award, however, also sends another no less important message: The Due Process Clause does not merely protect large corporations, like BMW and State Farm, from grossly excessive punitive awards. It also protects ordinary people like Joel Tenenbaum

This judgment relieves some of the PR pressure around the RIAA. While they were clearly happy with the height of the damages, hoping it would intimidate filesharers, it also became a rallying cry for others. The reduced damages proposed by Judge Gertner may silence the opposition to some extent, and reduce the impact of campaigns.

Joel Tenenbaum was somewhat relieved upon hearing the verdict. In a telephone interview with the Boston Globe he said: “Obviously, it’s better news than it could have been. But it’s basically equally unpayable to me.”

Even if he could pay it, none of the money – be it $675,000, or $67,500 – would find its way into the pockets of the artists whose songs were involved. The RIAA told TorrentFreak that the damages will be used to fund new anti-piracy campaigns instead.

Whether or not there will be a retrial, the current verdict is a blow to their anti-piracy campaigns, while the Constitutional concern may preclude any further strengthening of copyright laws and punishments in the near future.

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