Civil Liberties

Court Upholds Man's $675,000 Fine for Music Piracy

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Joel Tenenbaum, The Pirate
Joel Tenenbaum

In 2003, undergraduate student Joel Tenenbaum received a letter from record label lawyers demanding he pay for music he illegally downloaded. After failing to settle, the labels took Tenenbaum to court, where a jury hit him with a $675,000 fine. 

After a four-year rollercoaster of an appeal process, during which his fine was reduced to $67,500, Tenenbaum will now have to pay the original amount. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case last year, and according to an AP article, "a federal appeals court Tuesday found Tenenbaum's conduct was 'egregious' because he illegally shared songs for years despite numerous warnings."

Sony BMG Music Entertainment et al. v. Tenenbaum was the result of Tenenbaum "stealing" 30 songs via illegal download.

The companies--Sony, Warner Bros., Atlantic Records, Arista Records, and UMG Recordings--originally demanded $3,500 from the then-college sophomore. "I took action right away, sending a money order for $500," Tenenbaum claims on his website. "At the time, it was all I could afford as a 20-something college student," he wrote. "At one point, I offered $5250, which they declined — saying that too much time had passed… it was now $10,000."

When the case went to trial, Tenenbaum was found guilty. His jury found $675,000 to be an appropriate punishment for the crime. The judge later reduced the fine to one tenth of that, saying that the amount picked by the jury was arbitrary and a violation of Tenenbaum's right to due process. At that point, both parties moved for an appeal, which rose through the federal court system. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and the initial $675,000 fine was ultimately reinstated after his appeals failed.

In a Techdirt article about yesterday's decision, Mike Masnick argues:

Joel Tenenbaum's defense to being sued by the record labels was a complete and total train wreck. There were some legitimate legal issues to be raised, but on the whole, Tenenbaum's legal team either failed to raise them, or raised them so ridiculously that they were dismissed out of hand.

[…] This was all made much, much, much worse by the fact that Joel Tenenbaum was a terrible defendant. He never should have gone to trial and should have taken the first settlement offered to him for a very simple reason: he was guilty of massive amounts of file sharing, and there was no way he was going to get around that point in a trial. Even worse (much worse) he then lied, repeatedly, about this.

During the trial, Tenenbaum admitted to having downloaded and shared the 30 songs in question, as well as hundreds of others. However, he contested a broader issue about copyright laws. Tenenbaum argued that his actions fell under the doctrine of "fair use," which imposes limits and exceptions to copyright holders. This defense was rejected. 

During pre-trial, the judge admonished the plaintiffs, stating that they were "basically bankrupting people, and it's terribly critical that you stop it." 

Tenenbaum's website and twitter account, both titled "Joel Fights Back," have not been updated since September and May of 2012, respectively.