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The cost of downloading: Supreme Court says $675,000 fine remains for sharing 30 songs

Published time: May 22, 2012 15:58
Edited time: May 24, 2012 01:51

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A 29-year-old Rhode Island man is expected to pay $675,000 for the unauthorized downloading of 30 songs after the Supreme Court said on Monday that they will not weigh in on one of the record industry’s longest-running copyright infringement cases.

Joel Tenenbaum of Providence, RI will now go back to court to continue his fight against a penalty that a District Court judge once called “unconstitutionally” excessive.

Tenenbaum was hit with a $675,000 fine — $22,500 per song — after the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) took him to court over copyright infringement in 2009 and won their case. Following that decision, Nancy Gertner of United States District Court in Boston shot down the jury-determined penalty and reduced it by 90 percent, but not without the RIAA appealing and winning once more, reinstating the original fine.

In his latest legal battle, Tenenbaum tried taking his case to the US Supreme Court but Monday’s decision out of Washington, DC reveals that he will have no such luck with them. The court offers with no explanation that they will not hear the case.

Tenenbaum’s attorney, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Nesson, tells the Boston Hearald he is “disappointed, but not surprised.” His client, on the other hand, seems much less understanding.

"I can't believe the system would uphold a six-figure damages amount for downloading 30 songs on a file-sharing system that everybody used," Tenenbaum tells the Associated Press. "I can't believe the court would uphold something that ludicrous."

Tenenbaum just wrapped up a PhD program at Boston University over the weekend and argues that, after working for minimal compensation under a graduate student’s stipend for six years, it would be impossible for him to pay up. His defense team has argued that if a 2008 study on file sharing is correct then the average teenager has illegally downloaded 800 songs. If true, then the record industry could sue any defendant for upwards of $120 million; when multiplied by the number of individuals they’ve come after, the industry could essentially win $1.5 trillion for cases such as this.

RIAA spokesperson Cara Duckworth told reporters that the record label trade group is “pleased with the decision” after the Supreme Court said this week that they would not discuss the matter. The RIAA filed the suit on behalf of four major labels, including Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Brothers Records Inc.

Prof. Nesson says that next step will now be to take the case to US District Court Judge Rya Zobel. In the original appeals decision, the First Circuit Court said that Tenenbaum could bring his case before a new judge in hopes of having the fine lessened, although the RIAA would be able to receive a new trial if that would occur.