Massive Damages Reinstated in Illegal Downloading Case

By Beecher Tuttle September 19, 2011

A Boston University student who illegally downloaded and shared songs using a peer-to-peer network saw the damages-owed increase 30-fold on Friday after an appeals court rejected the previous ruling of another judge.

The saga began in 2009, when a civil jury ordered Joel Tenenbaum, a then student at Goucher College in Baltimore, to pay the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) a whopping $675,000, or $22,500 for each of the 30 songs that he illegally downloaded and shared.

A year later, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner reduced the damages to $67,500, or $2,250 per song, after she found the initial ruling to be “unconstitutionally excessive,” according to the AP.

Tenenbaum and the RIAA both appealed Gertner's decision. Tenenbaum was looking for a more significant reduction, while the trade group representing the music labels wanted the original damages to be reinstated.

The RIAA won the appeal on Friday, but not for the reasons that one might think. The appeals court ruled that Gertner made a procedural mistake by going directly to the Constitution, rather than exhausting all other legal avenues.

In its decision, the court noted that Gertner should have first considered a non-constitutional process called remittitur, which grants judges the ability to reduce damages that it finds excessive without having to rely on the Constitution.

“Had the court ordered remittitur of a particular amount, Sony would have then had a choice. It could have accepted the reduced award. Or, it could have rejected the remittitur, in which case a new trial would have ensued,” the ruling read.

In essence, the court found that Gertner jumped the gun, and has reinstated the verdict and sent the case back to the lower court for further consideration. Chances are now decent that the court will again reduce the damages – this time by ordering remittitur – the RIAA will reject it, and the process will start all over again.

“I am kind of dumbstruck,” Tenenbaum told the AP. “This is obviously more absurd than it was before.”

Even though the appeals court ruled against Tenenbaum – at least in the short term – it did comment on the unforgiving nature of the penalties themselves.

“This case raises concerns about application of the Copyright Act which Congress may wish to examine,” the judges wrote. 

Beecher Tuttle is a TechZone360 contributor. He has extensive experience writing and editing for print publications and online news websites. He has specialized in a variety of industries, including health care technology, politics and education. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

TechZone360 Contributor

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