Friday, July 9, 2010

Judge Says Damages In Tenenbaum Case Were 'Unconstitutionally Excessive';, 7/9/10

Mike Masnick,; Judge Says Damages In Tenenbaum Case Were 'Unconstitutionally Excessive':

"It seems like the Joel Tenenbaum case is simply an echo on the Jammie Thomas case. Both lawsuits involved very flawed defendants who probably shouldn't have gone through with their fights against the RIAA. In both cases, juries awarded huge statutory damages awards to the record labels. In Thomas' case it was $1.92 million or $80,000 per song. In the Tenenbaum case, it was $675,000 or $22,500 per song. Even though both cases were what I considered to be "bad" cases (too much evidence that both Thomas and Tenenbaum were actually heavily involved in file sharing), both have used the rulings to challenge the statutory damages awards as being unconstitutional.. and now the judges in both cases have agreed.

As you probably recall, the judge in the Thomas case reduced the $1.92 million award to $54,000 (or $2,250 per song) and today comes the news that Judge Gertner in the Tenenbaum case has declared the original damages award to be "unconstitutionally excessive" and slashed the total by 90% down to $67,500. In both cases, the judges actually set the per song damages award down to $2,250. There were lots of questions when Judge Davis did this in the Jammie Thomas case if a judge could actually do that, and that's still being fought to some extent. It seems likely that, as with the Thomas case, the RIAA will appeal this particular ruling because it most certainly does not want a precedent on the books that can lower the statutory damages rate for copyright.

This could start to get very interesting. Both judges are clearly taking a stand that the actual statutory rates set by Congress are ridiculously high and totally out of proportion with the actions done by the defendants. There is definitely some precedent for ridiculously high damages awards being thrown out as unconstitutionally excessive... but not when it comes to statutory rates, where the courts have generally said Congress has great leeway to determine what is and what is not excessive. However, with two judges pointing out that a number within the range provided by Congress is excessive, it's setting up a potentially very important legal battle about the statutory damages associated with copyright.

The industry has always pushed for higher and higher damages, somehow believing that will act as a disincentive for infringing. Yet, there doesn't appear to be any evidence at all that it's working. Instead, such high damages have actually done the opposite. They've convinced many, many people of just how ridiculously unfair and out of touch copyright laws are. The general public can recognize that sharing a single file shouldn't lead to a fine of tens of thousands of dollars. It's so out of proportion with reality that they begin to question the overall setup of copyright law itself. The industry's focus on higher and higher copyright damages has been a major strategic mistake that has backfired. These rulings -- which the industry will fight tooth and nail -- might actually be a blessing in disguise for the industry. If the actual damages weren't so ridiculous, people probably wouldn't be so up in arms over copyright issues."

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