US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner ruled that the damages that a jury last year ordered Joel Tenenbaum to pay was "unconstitutionally excessive" and reduced it to $67,500, or one-tenth the original sum.
"There is no question that this reduced award is still severe, even harsh," she wrote in a 62-page order. "It not only compensates the plaintiffs for the relatively minor harm that Tenenbaum caused them; it sends a strong message that those who exploit peer-to-peer networks to unlawfully download and distribute copyrighted works run the risk of incurring substantial damages awards."
Nonetheless, she said, the reduction also sends a message that the constitutional protection against excessive punitive awards protects not only big corporations in civil suits but "ordinary people like Joel Tenenbaum."
Congress, she added, never envisioned that the Digital Theft Deterrence Act of 1999 would subject people like Tenenbaum to huge statutory damages for violating copyright law through illegal file sharing.
The Recording Industry Association of America, a Washington-based trade group that represents the record labels, said in a statement that with Gertner's ruling, ``the court has substituted its judgment for that of 10 jurors as well as Congress.''
Gertner's ruling ``appropriately recognized the egregious conduct'' of Tenenbaum but dismissed the ``profound economic and artistic harm'' to the recording industry that occurs when people illegally share songs online, the statement said.
The RIAA said it will ``contest this ruling'' but declined to say whether it planned to appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
Tenenbaum, who had not read the decision yet, said in a telephone interview that he welcomed any reduction but that he could not afford to pay $67,500 either.
"Obviously, it's better news than it could have been," he said. "But it's basically equally unpayable to me."
After deliberating for about three hours last July, the jury concluded that Tenenbaum infringed on the copyrights of songs such as Nirvana's "Come as You Are" and Beck's "Loser." The labels were awarded $22,500 for each infringement.
The verdict was reached the day after Tenenbaum, a 26-year-old doctoral student in physics, unapologetically admitted from the witness stand that he had illegally downloaded and shared hundreds of songs from 1999 to at least 2007 through peer-to-peer networks.
In February of this year, his lawyer, Harvard law professor Charles Nesson, implored Gertner to slash the award or order a new trial.
The lawsuit by the recording labels against Tenenbaum was only the second in the nation to go to trial in a federal court. A Minnesota woman, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, faced similar allegations and fought the recording industry in two federal trials.
Earlier this year, a judge reduced a jury award of $1.9 million for the industry from the second trial to $54,000, and the industry offered to settle the case with her for $25,000. But Thomas-Rasset rejected the settlement, and the case is now poised to go to trial for a third time.
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