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


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.  

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  1. Stupid is as stupid does.

  2. There were likely a few dozen comments here before now that got nixed due to them all being graphic descriptions of punishments inflicted on recording industry lawyers.

  3. Wow. $675K will get your attention.

    At least that’s commensurate with the punishment rogue typical pretty much all isolated incident many police get for wrongful death cases all the time, so….

    Yeah, seems calibrated and not at all arbitrary.

    1. It’s copyright law. It has to be arbitrary because only via arbitrary rules that the state can twist patterns into a mockery of property.

  4. I don’t think there’s much sympathy for idiots.

    A well executed legal strategy that failed would be one thing, but this moron basically talked himself onto the gallows.

    1. That kid had a really stupid legal strategy for stealing a packet of Skittles (“Skittles should be free!”) which is why I don’t have any sympathy for the fact that he got life+100 years for that horrendous crime.

  5. How many CDs can you buy for $675,000? I’m not completely against IP, I just think it should be dialed back several orders of magnitude.

    Such a large settlement has nothing to do with fairness, it has everything to do with sending a message. It seems the RIAA convinced the jury it needed to send a message and it complied. The message was: see what happens when you fuck with us, little people? Or, more succinctly, FYTW.

    1. The fundamental problem today is statutory damages (really quite large damages too) that do not require the copyright holder to prove any amount of actual financial loss was suffered.

      So the plaintiff just adds up how many songs you copied without permission and multiplies by a maximum statutory damage. You get six figures really, really easy.

      1. Yep, because every time you pass on a digital copy of some collection of bits it is exactly the same as stealing a CD from a record store at retail value.

        Find an ignorant jury to rubber-stamp it and it’s all gravy.

        1. I am a pretty hardcore supporter of IP protections, but statutory damages are utter bullshit.

          1. Large statutory damages like this are all about shock and awe. And ultimately as self-defeating as the philosophy of the neo-cons who loved to throw around that term back in the glory days of neo-conism.

          2. if the record companies had done what the software companies did, I could be a law & order type on IP. Software companies will replace lost media at cost, provide discounts for upgrades, etc. How many times do I have to buy Frampton Comes Alive? LP, 8 track, cassette, etc. And if I damage my legal copy, I forfeit all rights.

            These guys are crooks and the fact that they produce a product no one likes enough to buy is self-evident. This is plain and simple racketeering.

  6. Also, it’s cool that he has a boat – a SAIL boat – him being a “pirate” and all.

    ARRRRRRRRGH!!! Avast, ye swabs!

    1. Did the alt text clue you in to that line of humor?

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

    I’m sure they took that to heart.

  8. In which justice is done upon a stupid thief.

    1. Yeah no, that’s not justice.

  9. Is this Joel Tenenbaum of THE Royal Tenenbaums?

  10. Hopefully, he has better luck in choosing his bankruptcy attorneys.

  11. So, 30 songs on iTunes is what, $30? Maybe $50? So we’re talking somewhere between 13,500 and 22,500 times the largest possible loss the record label could have lost here. That’s got to be an 8th Amendment issue, civil penalty or not.

  12. HL Mencken … black flag …. slit throats …. bla bla bla. Especially for all you turds still defending IP.

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