Court Rejects Downloads Case

On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of Joel Tenenbaum, a former Boston University student who was ordered to pay $675,000 for downloading and sharing 30 songs.

“I can’t believe the system would uphold a six-figure damages amount for downloading 30 songs on a file-sharing system that everybody used,” Tenenbaum told the Associated Press. “I can’t believe the court would uphold something that ludicrous.”

In 2009, Tenenbaum was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA, and was ordered by a jury to pay $22,500 per song that he shared through peer-to-peer networks.

Although a federal judge initially reduced the fine against Tenenbaum to $67,500 in 2009, the original sum was later reinstated by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

”We’re pleased with this decision,” said RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth after the Supreme Court passed on the case Monday.

Tenenbaum’s lawyers reportedly argued that federal copyright laws were not originally intended to punish consumers, while lawyers for the RIAA countered, arguing that economic impact of file sharing is greater than the cost of a single song.

Tenenbaum’s defense team was lead by Harvard Law School Professor Charles Nesson ’60, a co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who took on the case pro bono in 2008.

“The basic thing is that Joel is being held responsible for what the whole internet did,” said Nesson. “It’s like the death penalty for parking tickets.”

Tenenbaum’s situation is rare since few other file-sharing suits have been as drawn out as Tenebaum’s. According to his website, joelfightsback.com, “more than 30,000 people have settled their cases for between $3,000 - $12,000.”

Yet Tenenbaum has been fighting the RIAA and four record labels, including Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Brothers Records Inc., for years, declining multiple settlements along the way in an attempt to clear his name.

“It costs so much to defend,” said Nesson. “[A prolonged lawsuit] doesn’t happen very often.”

Like many other institutions, Harvard University has an official copyright policy that states that “All Harvard users must respect the copyrights in works that are accessible through computers connected to the Harvard network.”

The policy warns students that “Harvard will terminate the network access of users who are found to have repeatedly infringed the copyrights of others, and may also take disciplinary action.”

Nesson did not think that the Supreme Court’s decision would influence University policies regarding file sharing or compel them to make any changes.

“This didn’t do anything...the Supreme Court just refused to review it,” said Nesson, who emphasized the refusal to hear a case is different than a definitive verdict. “It’s almost like it’s no news.”

In the 2009 case, a jury decided the magnitude of the damage award against Tenenbaum.

“From a law point of view the thing that makes so little sense is the distortion of the American jury,” said Nesson. He noted that the jury arbitrarily set a “number within a range” rather than using facts to determine the true amount of damages.

However, Nesson was not discouraged by the Supreme Court’s refusal, and affirmed that there was much work to be done.

We will “proceed in the district court and try to get a rational decision there,” said Nesson.    Tenenbaum could not be reached for comment.

—Staff writer David W. Kaufman can be reached at davidkaufman@college.harvard.edu.

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