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August 1, 2009, 08:29 AM ET

Jury Orders Boston U. Graduate Student to Pay $675,000 for Illegal Downloads

A federal jury on Friday ordered a Boston University graduate student to pay four music companies $675,000, one day after the student, Joel Tenenbaum, admitted in court that he had downloaded and distributed more than two dozen songs that did not belong to him.

Only a few hours after Mr. Tenenbaum's testimony on Thursday, the judge found him guilty of violating copyright law, leaving it to the the jury to decide the amount of damages he would have to pay.

After leaving the courtroom last night, Mr. Tenenbaum told the blog Ars Technica, which has been following the trial all week, that he was "disappointed but not surprised."

The jury could have demanded that Mr. Tenenbaum, a 25-year-old physics student, pay as much as $4.5-million. In a separate lawsuit in June, a woman was ordered to pay $1.92-million in damages for downloading 24 songs. The Recording Industry Association of America had accused Mr. Tenenbaum of downloading 30 songs.

"I'm thankful that it wasn't much bigger, that it wasn't millions," Mr. Tenenbaum said, adding that he will file for bankruptcy protection if the award stands.

In a written statement, the association said it was pleased with the outcome. "We appreciate that Mr. Tenenbaum finally acknowledged that artists and music companies deserve to be paid for their work," the statement said. "We only wish he had done so sooner rather than lie about his illegal behavior."

Since the judge, Nancy Gertner of the U.S. District Court in Boston, decided that Mr. Tenenbaum could not argue that the downloaded music would fall under "fair use," which copyright law permits,  just hours before the trial began, on Monday, it seemed that the verdict had already been decided, and it was only a matter of how much damages he would be ordered to pay.

"We weren't allowed to speak to fairness," Charles R. Nesson, a Harvard law professor representing Mr. Tenenbaum, told Ars Technica. "I thought we had a pretty damn good argument of fair use."

Even though the trial is over, it is doubtful that the court has heard the last from Mr. Tenenbaum and Mr. Nesson. Last month Judge Gertner ordered Mr. Nesson to destroy recordings of court proceedings that he had posted online, or face sanctions. The recordings remain posted on a Harvard Web site.


1. hdhale - August 03, 2009 at 04:22 pm

CD Sales before Napster (1995): 722.9 million During the Era of Napster (2000): 942.5 million After the RIAA started its crackdown (2005): 705.4 million You're doing a heck of a job, RIAA. At your current rate of progress, there eventually won't be a whole lot left in terms of payments to artists and record companies to worry about--unless they are smart and change their business model, which is what many of them are now doing and cutting you out of the loop and off their payroll.

2. judicial1715 - August 03, 2009 at 04:25 pm

Wow! I am so shocked...who could have seen this one coming? The U.S. Department of Justice perhaps? Dr. Nesson should learn to read their memos more closely.

3. hdhale - August 03, 2009 at 05:23 pm

I agree, judicial1715, this simply isn't a Fair Use issue. If the student had, as I once did for a class, created a Flash demo that included a copyrighted song, then that would be a very good case for a Fair Use exemption. My original point stands however. It's not a question of whether or not there has been a violation that allows the RIAA to go after 83 year old grandmothers, students, and other "soft" targets who have trouble even hiring an attorney, let alone mounting a credible legal defense--the question is at what point does the recording industry figure out that they aren't creating examples of people, they are turning off buyers of their product?

4. abelvadi - August 04, 2009 at 06:40 am

As an academic librarian, I am very concerned that the judge didn't even allow the defense to argue their fair use case. We're told that "fair use" is not a right, but a defense against lawsuits in court. But if a judge has the power to prevent the defense from even attempting to use the fair use clause of copyright law at all, then everyone who deals with copyrighted material (ie all scholars) should be concerned. I hope a higher court overturns this decision on that procedural basis. Maybe the defense would succeed, maybe they would fail, to meet the 4-pronged "test" of the fair use clause, but they should have been allowed to at least attempt to argue it.

5. chriskox - August 04, 2009 at 11:46 am

Without really knowing what the jury had been instructed I'd almost be willing to bet that the reverse of nullification occurred here. Tenenbaum seemed such an unsympathetic defendant, and his attorneys likewise haughty, that most juries anywhere in the US would have wacked him.

6. evergreeners - August 04, 2009 at 03:51 pm

The Recording Industry Association of America had accused Mr. Tenenbaum of downloading 30 songs, which downloaded legally would have been valued at around $30. Damages awarded are equivalent to $22,500 per song. Is there another industry where damages can ever reach such an unbalance ratio? It's time for caps on these, this is exploitive, regardless of an unsympathetic defendant.

7. cronknews - August 04, 2009 at 08:21 pm

24 songs? Isn't that about the equivalent of two syrupy mix tapes the judge made for her squeeze in high school? Until the (ugh) millennials develop a set of laws that work for both artists and fans, rock & roll is dead. ~CronkNews.com

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