Judge Declares Tenenbaum Fine Unconstitutional, Slashes it To Tenth

It’s been a while since we were able to report on anything in the Tenenbaum case, but news has broke today that the Joel Tenenbaum case took an interesting turn. A judge called the $675,000 fine “unconstitutionally excessive” and slashed it by a factor of ten to $67,500.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

It’s been nearly a year since Joel Tenenbaum was fined $675,000 for sharing 30 works. It was one of two cases that was closely followed by many American copyright observers. Today, after a long and winding road, a recent decision on the challenge that the fine was unconstitutional.

According to court documents, the judge wrote, “This copyright case raises the question of whether the Constitution’s Due Process Clause is violated by a jury’s award of $675,000 in statutory damages against an individual who reaped no pecuniary reward from his infringement and whose individual infringing acts caused the plaintiffs minimal harm. I hold that it is.”

“While that award fell within the broad range of damages set by Congress,” the document read, “Tenenbaum challenged it as far exceeding any plausible estimate of the harm suffered by the plaintiffs and the benefits he reaped. He filed a motion for new trial or remittitur, raising both common law and constitutional grounds.2 In addition to the plaintiffs opposing Tenenbaum’s motion, the United States government also intervened and filed a memorandum in support of the constitutionality of 17 U.S.C. § 504(c) as applied in this case.”

“The plaintiffs in this case, however, 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. And at a retrial on the issue of damages, I would again be presented with the very constitutional issues that the remittitur procedure was designed to avoid. I am thus obliged to deal with Tenenbaum’s constitutional challenge.”

“Since the jury’s award fell within the range set by Congress, Tenenbaum was arguably on notice of the amount of damages that might be awarded to the plaintiffs. But that fact — notice — does not preclude constitutional review. While the parties disagree as to the content of the review of an award of statutory damages, they agree that some form of constitutional review is appropriate.”

“Weighing all of these considerations,” the judge wrote, “I conclude that the jury’s award of $675,000 in statutory damages for Tenenbaum’s infringement of thirty copyrighted works is unconstitutionally excessive. This award is 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. To borrow Chief Judge Michael J. Davis’ characterization of a smaller statutory damages award in an analogous file-sharing case, the award here is simply “unprecedented and oppressive.” Capitol Records Inc. v. Thomas, 579 F. Supp. 2d
1210, 1228 (D. Minn. 2008). It cannot withstand scrutiny under the Due Process Clause.”

“For the reasons I discuss below, I reduce the jury’s award to $2,250 per infringed work, three times the statutory minimum, for a total award of $67,500. Significantly, this amount is more than I might have awarded in my independent judgment. But the task of determining the appropriate damages award in this case fell to the jury, not the Court. I have merely reduced the award to the greatest amount that the Constitution will permit given the facts of this case.”

It’s nice to know sanity can actually be seen in the US court system once in a while. The original fine, in just about everyone’s mind when it first broke, was way too big. It was like some sort of money making bonanza for rights holders. Most of these songs are sold online for $1. While the fine is still quite high considering the damaging effect of sharing 30 works (i.e. none to less in most cases), it’s not like the labels are winning the lottery here either.

The judgment doesn’t clear Tenenbaum and it doesn’t shy away from the RIAAs message of the so-called evils of file-sharing in any way still, but it does show that the constitution doesn’t only apply to large corporations.

[Via Ray Beckerman]

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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