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Tenenbaum’s Damages Reduced from $675,000 to $67,500
July 10, 2010
Thomas Mennecke
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Calling the jury's award "unconstitutionally excessive", the judge overseeing the Tenebaum vs music industry case significantly reduced the $675,000 judgment against him to $67,500. This is the second time in as many trials a judge has found a jury's award outside the realm of normalcy. In the Jammie Thomas-Rasset file-sharing case, the judge reduced the damages from a staggering $1.92 million to a mere $54,000.

So what's going on here? It seems that judges overseeing these cases aren't very impressed with the excessive damages being awarded by the juries. Although US copyright law permits damages to range between $750 and $150,000 per infringement, the stratospheric end that juries appear to be finding is not the intention of the law.

"But since constitutional rights are at issue, deference must not be slavish and unthinking. This is especially so in this case since there is substantial evidence indicating that Congress did not contemplate that the Copyright Act’s broad statutory damages provision would be applied to college students like Tenenbaum who file-shared without any pecuniary gain."

The $67,500 that Joel owes may be 90% less than the original, but for a fresh out of college young adult, it might as well be the same total. Regardless, the judge seemed intent in sending at least some kind of message. As RecordingIndustryVsThePeople notes, this rationale is puzzling since even the judge found that actual damages were only $1 per infraction.

“There is no question that this reduced award is still severe, even harsh. It 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 awards. Tenenbaum’s behavior, after all, was hardly exemplary. The jury found that he not only violated the law, but did so willfully.”

There have only been two defendants who have gone to full trial with the music industry, but neither Tenenbaum nor Rasset have proven to be worthy heroes of the cause. In both cases, they attempted to shift blame to family members or others - actions that no one finds flattering. From the judge's order:

"Instead of accepting responsibility for his actions, Tenenbaum sought to shift blame to his family members and other visitors of his family’s home by suggesting that they could have used the file-sharing software installed on his computer. He admittedly lied in sworn responses to discovery requests. He also made several misleading or untruthful statements in his deposition testimony. For example, he suggested that a computer he used to download and distribute songs through Kazaa had been destroyed when in fact it had not.”

Of note in the judge's order was protecting individuals from excessive judgments. The judge noted that quite often, large businesses and organizations found relief from substantial judgments, and although Joel was caught lying, he was still entitled to this benefit.

“Reducing the jury’s $675,000 award, however, also sends another no less important message: The Due Process Clause does not merely protect large corporations, like BMW and State Farm, from grossly excessive punitive awards. It also protects ordinary people like Joel Tenenbaum.”

What happens next? The RIAA isn’t happy with the judge’s decision, as it seriously hurts the ability to collect large damages and doesn’t quite send the crippling message that previous damages once did. Since they probably won’t accept the judge’s order, we can expect to see this case continue.

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