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The Gavel Falls in Illegal Music Downloading Trial

By Neetal Parekh | Last updated on

Joel Tenenbaum, Boston University graduate student, was handed down a guilty verdict by a federal judge late and pegged with a $675,000 penalty last week in his trial for violation of copyright infringement for illegal downloading and sharing of music online in a case brought by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 2007.  

The trial had its share of quirks and surprises.  Even before the opening remarks, presiding U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner, held that Tenenbaum's proposed defense of fair use would not fly.  In her ruling, that took a major line of defense away from Tenebaum's team, she stated that Tenenbaum "propos[ed] a fair-use defense so broad that it would swallow the copyright protections that Congres created."

The defense then kicked off with a creative opening statement from billionaire Harvard Law School professor, Charles Nesson, who represented the 25-year old student.  Nesson appealed to the jury by crushing a piece of styrofoam-- letting its many remnants to fall to the floor in a pile in front of the jury.  The hundred of pieces, according to the professor, represented how sharing music online converts cds into "a million bits" or multi-song compilations available only in stores to individual songs free to grab on the internet.

The trial moved along with admittance of evidence and examination of witnesses.  However, after three hours on the stand for Mr. Tenenbaum, he gave a one-word affirmation in response to plaintiff-record label's question on whether he admitted liability for illegal downloading and distributing the 30 that he was charged for.  Mr. Tenenbaum went on to admit that his awareness that downloading and distributing copyrighted music was against the law "was something that progressed" in his mind over time.

Following the Tenenbaum's admission of liability, Judge Gertner issued a directed verdict--upon the nudging of music industry attorneys--sending the case to a jury for determination of damages.

Was it willful?

The jury was left to consider whether Tenenbaum's copyright infringements were willful.  A finding of willful infringement bore the potential of increasing per-case awards for each of the counts brought against him from the range of $700 to $30,000, up to $150,000 per willful infringement.  In the end, the jury deliberated just three hours before finding that Tenenbaum did willfully infringe and ordering him to pay $22,500 per song, for a total of $675,00.


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