In a decision sparse in terms of legal precedence, Joel Tenenbaum, the Boston University student involved in a civil suit with the Recording Industry Association of America, again finds himself staring down the barrel of a six figure judgment. This comes on the heels of a decision by a Federal Appeals Court to reverse former District Court Judge Nancy Gertner’s ruling that Tenebaum’s fine be reduced from $675,000 to $67,500.
Now he owes $675,000 again.
Gertner felt that the jury’s initial ruling was excessive, and therefore a violation of due process. While the appeals court did not directly address the constitutional issues raised by Gertner, they took issue with her “disregard for procedure” in reducing the fine levied against Tenebaum. The appeals court cited that Gertner, in lieu of an arbitrary reduction, should have proposed a figure that the Record Companies could settle on or choose to decline; the latter resulting in a second trial.
The constitutional gray area brought into the spotlight by Gertner’s decision seems to form the foundation of the argument launched by Charles Nesson, a Harvard Law Professor, and his team of law students aiding him Tenebaum’s defense. Nesson and his team seem intent on promoting the idea of the Copyright Statute being vulnerable in its application upon individual file sharers who have no intent to profit from their infringement, a point brought up by Tenebaum in his own defense.
Jason Harrow, one of the students aiding Nesson, stood before the First Circuit Court of Appeals and argued that so few cases of this nature had been filed because “no one thought the statute would apply to consumers like this.” The Judge quickly dismissed this notion by stating that “the literal language of the statute does not include an exception for consumers.” She also pointed out that Congress could have easily written in this exemption had it been their intent for the statute to be interpreted thus. However, Harrow still argued that the statute should be fairly interpreted in order to suppress any constitutional red flags, and that Congress did not necessarily intend for the copyright laws to be enacted in a way that gave leeway to such “absurd results.”
The actual body of the Copyright Law of the United States reads that, “In a case where the copyright owner sustains the burden of proving, and the court finds, that infringement was committed willfully, the court in its discretion may increase the award of statutory damages to a sum of not more than $150,000.” As a result, Tenebaum, who is considered a willful violator responsible for 30 separate infringements, faced a maximum settlement of $4.5 million.
Tenebaum is grateful that the judgment did not reach this multi-million dollar ceiling, saying “That to me sends a message of ‘we considered your side with some legitimacy’”. However, he has also noted that even the significantly smaller figure set by Nancy Gertner, and recently overturned by the appeals court, will result in his filing for bankruptcy.
This is the first case of its kind to reach the Federal Appeals Court, although a similar case involving Minnesota mother, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, is also destined to appear before a Federal Court after three years of circulation in the legal system.