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Music downloading verdict illustrates need to revisit copyright statute

By: DOLAN MEDIA NEWSWIRES//August 31, 2012

Music downloading verdict illustrates need to revisit copyright statute

By: DOLAN MEDIA NEWSWIRES//August 31, 2012

By Mass. Lawyers Weekly Editorial Advisory Board
Dolan Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA — A U.S. District Court judge’s recent decision upholding a $675,000 verdict in a music downloading case should prompt Congress to step in and review the governing statute.

The defendant in the case is Joel Tenenbaum, a 28-year-old Boston University graduate student who used file-sharing software to download and distribute 30 songs on sites that included Napster and KaZaA.

Members of the Recording Industry Association of America sued Tenenbaum for violating the Copyright Act. Under the act, defendants who “willfully” infringe upon copyrights are liable for up to $150,000 in statutory damages for each violation.

A jury ordered Tenenbaum to pay damages of $22,500 per song, for a total of $675,000.

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner concluded that the award was unconstitutionally excessive and reduced it to $67,500. But the 1st U.S Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the original verdict, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Tenenbaum’s appeal.

The case was assigned to a new judge in light of Gertner’s retirement, and in late August Judge Rya Zobel upheld the full $675,000 award.

The music industry has aggressively pursued these cases, bringing suit against thousands of individuals across the country. In a second closely watched case, a federal jury in Minnesota ordered a single mother who had downloaded 24 songs to pay a judgment of $1.9 million. That award was reduced to $54,000 by a federal judge last year and is now on appeal before the 8th Circuit.

These verdicts illustrate how the underlying statute has not kept up with the technology. The act, which talks about the distribution of “phonorecords,” is antiquated and ill-equipped to deal with the sharing of digital music files.

Damages of $22,500 a song — or even $2,250 a song — seem grossly inflated at a time when you can purchase that same song for $1.29 on iTunes or .99 on

The reality is that the recording industry is using a statute that has not been updated since the 1970s to bankrupt individuals who cannot hope to pay the judgments assessed against them.

Congress should take a long-overdue look at revising the Copyright Act.


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