Submit to Digest

Sony BMG Music Entertainment et. al. v. Tenenbaum: District of Massachusetts reduces jury-awarded damages by 90 percent in copyright infringement lawsuit

Copyright Patent

Sony BMG Music Entertainment et. al. v. Tenenbaum, No. 07cv11446-NG (D. Mass. July 9, 2010)

Slip Opinion

In a decision by Judge Nancy Gertner, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts reduced the damages awarded by a jury to members of the recording industry in a copyright infringement lawsuit. After finding defendant Joel Tenenbaum guilty of illegally downloading copyrighted music, the jury awarded statutory damages of $22,500 per song, $675,000 total for 30 songs. Judge Gertner held that the damages award should be reduced to $2,250 per song or $67,500 total. In so holding, Judge Gertner maintained that the jury’s award was far greater than necessary to serve the government’s interest in deterring copyright infringement and compensating copyright owners whose rights have been infringed. She argued that Congress never intended the extraordinary damages provisions of copyright law to apply to situations where a defendant did not receive pecuniary benefit from his infringing activities.

Ars Technica provides an overview of the case. The Electronic Frontier Foundation commends the court’s decision.

In 2007, several major players in the recording industry filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against graduate student Joel Tenenbaum. The plaintiff companies accused Tenenbaum of illegally downloading copyrighted music via the peer-to-peer file-sharing network Kazaa. On the witness stand at trial, Tenenbaum admitted his liability for sharing the music, and Judge Gertner issued a directed verdict against him. Under U.S. copyright law, a jury has discretion to award damages of up to $150,000 per work if it finds the defendant guilty of willful infringement. The jury found that Tenenbaum had willfully infringed the plaintiffs’ copyrights and awarded the copyright owners $675,000 in damages.

Tenenbaum challenged the damages award. Last week, the court found the award to be “unconstitutionally excessive.” Reducing the jury’s award by 90 percent, Judge Gertner held that damages of $22,500 per song could not withstand scrutiny under the Due Process Clause. Quoting Chief Judge Michael J. Davis of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, who reduced jury-awarded damages in a 2008 peer-to-peer file-sharing case, Judge Gertner stated that the jury’s award was simply “unprecedented and oppressive.” Judge Gertner maintained that the legislative history of the Copyright Act revealed no congressional intent to punish noncommercial users of peer-to-peer networks by imposing severe statutory damages. She argued that despite Tenenbaum’s wrongdoing for which he should be punished, file-sharing is “fairly low on the totem pole of reprehensible conduct.”

Some commentators have applauded the District of Massachusetts for “restoring sanity to copyright damages.” See e.g., Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Recording Industry Association of America, however, was not pleased with the court’s decision; it released a statement contending that “the court has substituted its judgment for that of 10 jurors as well as Congress.” In the absence of legislation standardizing damages awards for peer-to-peer file-sharing cases, federal judges such as Judge Gertner are making an effort to establish precedent for reasonable damages in this type of copyright infringement lawsuit.

Abby Lauer is a 2L at the Harvard Law School.