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Big media scores a major win over U.S. citizens

Want to pirate music?  You'd be better off breaking into a store and stealing CDs in the real world.

That's the message sent by U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts Judge Rya W. Zobel who sided [PDF] with fellow Judge Nancy Gertner who upheld [PDF] a jury's ruling in the case RIAA v. Tenenbaum that the defendant was liable for $675,000 in damages for "willful infringement" of 30 songs via Kazaa.

Judge Gertner had subsequently reduced [PDF] the damages to $67,500, commenting:

[Recent] decisions have underscored the fact that the Constitution protects not only criminal defendants from the imposition of "cruel and unusual punishments," U.S. Const. amend. VIII, but also civil defendants facing arbitrarily high punitive awards.

The U.S. Recording Industry Association of America and its major media labels disagreed that asking a graduate student in physics, who typically earns between a $15,000-$30,000 USD yearly stipend, to pay $675,000 for non-commercial infringement of 30 works was unfair.  Thus it appealed the ruling.

Mr. Tenenbaum also appealed the ruling, with his attorney arguing the jury received improper instructions and that the fine was still too excessive.

The new ruling by Judge Zobel addressed those appeals, leaning heavily in the RIAA's favor.  As a result of the appeals, the reduction by Judge Gertner, who is now retired, is vacated.  That means Mr. Tenenbaum is now on the hook for the full $675,000 USD in damages, punishment the retired Judge Gertner argued was unconstitutionally cruel.

But Mr. Tenenbaum's options for escaping that massive fine are dwindling, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined [PDF] to hear the case.

Mr. Tenenbaum is at least fiscally a bit better prepared to deal with the crippling economic sanctions that a jury of his peers leveled on him.  He received a Ph.D in physics from Boston University in 2012, having written 9 peer-reviewed papers.  The average for various Ph.D positions in physics ranges from $80,000 to $90,000 USD [source], so with federal taxes and basic living expenses, Mr. Tenenbaum could theoretically pay off his debt to big media in 15 to 20 years. 

Joel Tenenbaum
Joel Tenenbaum recently received his Ph.D in physics from Boston University. [Image Source: BU]

The BU student was represented by Harvard Law School Professor Charles Nesson, a prominent critic of the RIAA.

Fortunately for grad students everywhere there probably won't be a lot more cases like Mr. Tenenbaum's; the RIAA has largely halted its threats campaign, after it lost far more money than it earned.  Of course if the RIAA succeeds in lobbying politicians to pass certain laws, taxpayers could be forced to pick up the high bills for new and even more ambitious copyright crackdowns at the behest of big media.

(The original number of songs to be considered in the 2007 trial was 31, but one song was removed.)

Source: U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts via Beckerman Legal



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RE: a balanced punishment
By Beenthere on 8/25/2012 2:06:33 PM , Rating: -1
Punishment is meant to be a DETERRENT to prevent the individual and other socially challenged folks from making the same poor choice in the future.

BTW, in some countries like Sweden the fine for speeding is based on your income and has exceeded $1 Million dollars on occasion.

A person can not escape accountability for a government (court) imposed fine by leaving the country. You will be stopped at the boarder, arrested and charged with fleeing. Then you'll go to jail in addition to having to still pay the original fine.


RE: a balanced punishment
By Jeffk464 on 8/25/2012 2:18:07 PM , Rating: 4
The courts aren't going to prevent you from traveling do to a fine, thats absurd. The fine itself is absurd and the RIAA has zero chance of getting that money from him.


RE: a balanced punishment
By Silver2k7 on 8/26/2012 3:45:29 AM , Rating: 3
"BTW, in some countries like Sweden the fine for speeding is based on your income and has exceeded $1 Million dollars on occasion."

This sounds like an urban legend.
Swedens speeding fines have increased in the last few years.. but Norway is still more expensive to get a speeding ticket.


RE: a balanced punishment
By chromatix on 8/26/2012 10:23:28 AM , Rating: 2
No, it's apparently true. The driver was Swedish, and several Nordic countries operate a "day-fine" principle, but he got the ticket in Switzerland which also does so. Here's a sufficiently reputable source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-10960230

The fine looks enormous, but you have to remember that he was caught driving at about 180mph on the public road. In many other countries, that wouldn't so much get you a fine as an outright disqualification. And, judging by the car he was driving, he can actually afford a $1M fine - if nothing else, by selling the car!

The day-fine system is designed to match the punishment to the crime *and* the criminal. Somebody on the poverty line will be seriously affected by a relatively small fine, while "the 1%" have a tendency to laugh off relatively large fines, so fines are instead defined as a number of days of income. As a side benefit, there is no need to adjust the fines for inflation every few years.


RE: a balanced punishment
By Jeffk464 on 8/26/2012 4:28:50 PM , Rating: 2
I agree with fines being related to your income. What do you think a $200 fine means to Bill Gates?


RE: a balanced punishment
By Rukkian on 8/27/2012 10:15:14 AM , Rating: 1
This is not a bill to the IRS or any other government agency, they have no rights to stop you (at least not until a few more politicians get bribes, er contributions). It would take quite a bit of effort and time to even get wages garnished, let alone imprisoned. This is a civil matter, not criminal.


RE: a balanced punishment
By LRonaldHubbs on 8/28/2012 8:14:49 AM , Rating: 1
Yeah, it's based on income. The person who was fined 1M for speeding wasn't making 90K per year like this guy. Therefore that example is irrelevant.


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