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$675k For Illegal Downloading Not Excessive: 1st Circuit

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 27, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Is it a violation of due process when a jury issues a judgment against you for more than half a million dollars, all for illegally downloading thirty songs?

This is the question Joel Tenenbaum put before the First Circuit, but his hopes were dashed when the Court affirmed that this monetary award was not excessive in light of his conduct in its Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum decision on Tuesday.

Illegal downloaders beware, the Tenenbaum Court has some scolding words for those who take advantage of the Internet's bevy of pirated music.

Oh Tenenbaum, Oh Tenenbaum

Tenenbaum’s appeal is based on a $675,000 verdict awarded against him in a 2009 federal copyright suit lead by Sony BMG and supported by the notorious Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), reports the ABA Journal.

This suit basically slapped him with a judgment of $22,500 for each of the 30 songs he illegally downloaded, which Tenenbaum claimed violated his due process rights. The crux of this large award was the idea that Tenenbaum had willfully violated Sony BMG’s copyright, allowing the jury in his trial to let the hammer fall a little more heavily.

The First Circuit first considered whether the statutory damages allowed under the Copyright act were constitutionally sound, they dredged up a near hundred-year-old Supreme Court case about statutory compensation against railroad companies who charge too much to transport passengers.

The Williams Court opined that a statutory award is not excessive in violation of due process unless it is “so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportioned to the offense and obviously unreasonable.”

The Court sticks with the Williams standard, as apparently the Sixth and Eighth Circuits have chosen to do so, and ignores his request to consider the award under a punitive damages analysis (because it was purely statutory).

$22.5k Per Song Sounds Unreasonable

Much of the Tenenbaum Court’s analysis of Tenenbaum’s due process claim comes down to two things:

  1. The purpose of the statutory damages under the Copyright Act.
  2. Tenenbaum’s behavior in downloading the infringing music.

The Supreme Court ruled six decades ago that high awards under the Copyright Act were to discourage “wrongful conduct” as well as provide actual compensation for injury, and even though this might seem like a punitive element, the Supreme Court says it isn’t.

Given that expansive backdrop for Copyright violation awards, you can see how the First Circuit had no problem finding that $22,500 per song, which is only 15% of the maximum award for willful violations, which would have been $150,000 per song, is simpatico with due process.

Downloader Beware

If you’re worried about the high cost of music driving you to piracy, think about Joel Tenenbaum, who ended up paying $675,000 for what is ostensibly two albums worth of music, and maybe consider just buying music from an online store like iTunes or Amazon.

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