A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated a whopping $675,000 file sharing verdict that a jury levied against a Boston college student for making 30 tracks of music available on a peer-to-peer network.
The decision by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a federal judge who slashed the award as “unconstitutionally excessive.” U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner of Boston reduced the verdict to $67,500, or $2,250 for each of the 30 tracks defendant Joel Tenenbaum unlawfully downloaded and shared on Kazaa, a popular file sharing peer-to-peer service. The Recording Industry Association of America and Tenenbaum both appealed in what has been the nation’s second RIAA file sharing case to ever reach a jury.
The Obama administration argued in support of the original award, and said the judge went too far when addressing the constitutionality of the Copyright Act’s damages provisions. The act allows damages of up to $150,000 a track.
The appeals court agreed with the government, and said the judge should have considered reducing the jury’s verdict under what is known as “remittitur.” That is a little-used power beholden to judges, and they assert it without a constitutional basis.
“The district court should first have considered the non-constitutional issue of remittitur, which may have obviated any constitutional due process issue and attendant issues,” the appeals court wrote Friday. “Had the court ordered remittitur of a particular amount, Sony would have then had a choice. It could have accepted the reduced award. Or, it could have rejected the remittitur, in which case a new trial would have ensued.”
If any of this seems familiar, the same thing happened in the nation’s first jury trial against a file sharer, Jammie Thomas-Rasset. That case has morphed into a Ground Hog Day of sorts for the same reason. After a third trial in that case, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis of Minnesota slashed an award from $1.5 million to $54,000 in a jury verdict for sharing 24 songs on Kazaa.
The jury’s award was “so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportionate to the offense and obviously unreasonable,” the judge wrote in July.
In either case, the RIAA maintains that judges do not have the power to reduce damages awards in Copyright Act cases at all.
Friday’s decision did not address the question of how the legal process would ever end if a judge repeatedly reduced the award on remittitur and the plaintiff refused to accept it. That would mean endless trials.
The RIAA had sued thousands of individuals for file sharing. Most defendants have settled out of court for a few thousand dollars.
Only two cases have gone to trial, and now in both, monstrous jury verdicts were reduced by the presiding judges for the same reasons.
The significance of Friday’s decision, however, appears to be minimal in the music-sharing context. The RIAA has abandoned its litigation campaign and instead is working with internet service providers to warn file sharers or kick them off the internet if they repeatedly engage in online copyright infringement.
But whether judges ultimately have the authority to reduce damages awards in Copyright Act cases, even those involving music tracks, is another unanswered story. The Supreme Court has never squarely answered that question.