Monday, July 12, 2010

Music Industry's $675K Judgment Against File-Sharing College Student Reduced as Unconstitutionally Excessive

In a closely-watched federal lawsuit brought by several major recording companies, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner has reduced a damage award against a defendant who illegally downloaded 30 songs when he was in college. The case is Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum, 07cv11446-NG (D. Mass. July 9, 2010).

Judge Gertner’s opinion begins: “This copyright case raises the question of whether the Constitution’s Due Process Clause is violated by a jury’s award of $675,000 in statutory damages against an individual who reaped no pecuniary reward from his infringement and whose individual infringing acts caused the plaintiffs minimal harm. I hold that it is.” Here’s more from the opinion’s introduction:

Joel Tenenbaum (“Tenenbaum”), the defendant in this action, was accused of using filesharing software to download and distribute thirty copyrighted songs belonging to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs are a group of the country’s biggest recording companies. Their lawsuit against Tenenbaum is one of thousands that they have brought against file sharers throughout the country. Tenenbaum, like many of the defendants in these suits, was an undergraduate when his file-sharing was detected.

Although the plaintiffs presented evidence that Tenenbaum illegally downloaded and shared thousands of recordings, the trial focused on his infringement of the plaintiffs’ copyrights in thirty songs. As to these songs, Tenenbaum’s liability for infringement was not seriously in question. . . . The only questions for the jury were whether Tenenbaum’s infringements were willful and what amount of damages was appropriate. . . . The jury did find that Tenenbaum willfully infringed the plaintiffs’ copyrights and imposed damages of $22,500 per song, yielding a total award of $675,000.

. . .

I conclude that the jury’s award of $675,000 in statutory damages for Tenenbaum’s infringement of thirty copyrighted works is unconstitutionally excessive. This award is far greater than necessary to serve the government’s legitimate interests in compensating copyright owners and deterring infringement. In fact, it bears no meaningful relationship to these objectives. . . . It cannot withstand scrutiny under the Due Process Clause.

For the reasons I discuss below, 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.

For additional coverage see the AP and How Appealing.


(Hat Tip: Howard Bashman)

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