RIAA trial: Is $150,000 per pirated song a fair punishment?

Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP
Joel Tenenbaum, a graduate student from Providence, R.I., poses outside federal court, after taking the stand in his defense in his copyright-infringement trial.

After admitting that he is liable for having "uploaded and downloaded music" illegally, Boston University graduate student Joel Tenenbaum faces some potentially steep fines. The jury, which will meet late today, has already been told by the judge that Mr. Tenenbaum must pay for pirating music. But they will decide if he did so "willfully."

That's the difference between a $22,500 payment to the record industry and a $4.5 million one.

Federal law states that juries may award $750 to $30,000 for each of the 30 songs that Tenenbaum apparently pirated. But if the music label's copyrights were infringed upon "willfully," then damages could reach $150,000 per song.

Tenenbaum's lawyer, Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson, asked the jury to keep damages small as a way to "send a message" to the music industry. The BU student is just a "kid in his bedroom clicking on a computer screen," he said Friday. "Let the punishment fit the crime."

"But a lawyer for the recording labels is calling Tenenbaum a 'hardcore, habitual, long-term infringer' who knew what he was doing was wrong," reported the AP.

The Boston Globe wrote that this is "only the second of thousands of music downloading complaints filed by the industry to go to trial. Most defendants settle out of court for $3,000 to $5,000."

The other trial, against Jammie Thomas-Rassset, started with the jury awarding $9,250 per song. During her appeal, that number rose to $80,000 for each of the 24 songs that she illegally shared. The total: $1.92 million.

Many have argued that these fines are unreasonably high. Does downloading a single song really cause thousands of dollars in "damages" to the music industry? "Should the jury throw the book at Tenenbaum on the issue of damages, his counsel, Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson, will challenge the constitutionality of the damage provisions of the Copyright Act," writes Ars Technica.


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