Judge cuts man’s penalty for illicit downloads by 90%, to $2,250 a song
BOSTON — A federal judge on Friday slashed a $675,000 verdict against a Boston University graduate student who was found liable for illegally downloading and sharing 30 songs online, saying the jury damage award against a person who gained no financial benefit from his copyright infringement is “unconstitutionally excessive.”
Joel Tenenbaum of Providence, R.I., was sued by some of the largest music companies who said he violated copyright rules. He admitted in court to downloading songs between 1999 and 2007. The jury found him liable and assessed the damage award last July.
His lawyers appealed, calling the award “se- vere” and “oppressive” and asking the court for a new trial or reduced damages. Judge Nancy Gertner denied the request for a new trial.
Gertner cut the award to $67,500 — three times the statutory minimum and about $2,250 per song — and said the new amount “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.”
“There is no question that this reduced award is still severe, even harsh,” Gertner said, noting that the law used by the jury to penalize Tenenbaum did not offer any meaningful guidance on the question of what amount of damages was appropriate.
Tenenbaum said he was happy the court recognized that the jury award was unconstitutional, but he said he also cannot afford to pay the reduced damages.
“I still don’t have $70,000 — and $2,000 per song still seems ridiculous in light of the fact that you can buy them for 99 cents on iTunes,” he said. “I mean, $675,000 was also absurd.”
The Recording Industry Association of America said the group will appeal the ruling. “With this decision, the court has substituted its judgment for that of 10 jurors as well as Congress,” RIAA said in a statement.
Gertner said that her decision is in line with previous court decisions to curb excessive jury awards that targeted businesses: “These decisions have underscored the fact that 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’s decision comes more than five months after a federal judge in Minneapolis also drastically reduced a nearly $2 million verdict against a woman found liable last year of sharing 24 songs over the Internet, calling the jury’s penalty “monstrous and shocking.”
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis reduced the $1.92 million penalty against Jammie ThomasRasset to $2,250 per song, or about $54,000.