Some time ago, we wrote a blog post concerning the travails of one Joel Tenenbaum. For those among our legion of faithful readers who are short of memory, Joel was sued by Sony BMG Music for using file-sharing software to download and share 30 songs in violation of their copyrights. We didn’t say “alleged” because, at trial, he admitted to these dastardly acts.
The jury found the infringement willful and assessed damages of $675K. When we left Joel, he was unhappy with this outcome and had filed a motion challenging the award on constitutional grounds.
Taking up the story at this point, we can now report on the Court’s decision on Joel’s motion. In a 54-page Order and Memorandum, the Judge found that “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 pecuniary gain” and that the jury’s award was “far greater than necessary to serve the government’s legitimate interests in compensating copyright owners and deterring infringement. In fact, it bears no meaningful relationship to these objectives.” So, the reader may ask, what did the judge do?
Well, one thing she could have done was grant a “remittitur.” This is an offer to the plaintiff of a choice between accepting a reduced judgment or facing a new trial on damages. However, she did not do so because, as she noted in her decision, “[t]he plaintiffs in this case … made it abundantly clear that they were, to put it mildly, going for broke. They stated in open court that they likely would not accept a remitted award.”
So, the judge concluded that the jury’s award of $675K was “unconstitutionally excessive” and reduced it to $2,250 per infringed work (the amount set by the appellate court in the Capitol Records case). This was three times the statutory minimum, for a total award of $67,500, which, she held, was “the greatest amount that the Constitution will permit given the facts of this case. There is no question that this reduced award is still severe, even harsh. Tenenbaum’s behavior, after all, was hardly exemplary. The jury found that he not only violated the law, but did so willfully.”
THE LESSON TO BE LEARNED: “The Due Process Clause does not merely protect large corporations … from grossly excessive punitive awards. It also protects ordinary people like Joel Tenenbaum.”
It's nice to see that a few courts are coming to their senses. If only the record industry would follow suit. If, rather than fighting internet technology, the record labels had embraced the web and figured out how to profit from it, they would not now be reduced to suing destitute college students for outrageous sums of money. Now that Google's making bold moves toward connecting every TV to the web, let's hope the film industry doesn't make the same mistake the record labels did.