Sony BMG Music Entertainment  v. Tenenbaum

Following the lead of other courts addressing statutory penalties for illegal music downloading, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld a $675,000 fine for downloading and distributing 30 songs. Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum, Case No. 12-2146 (1st Cir., June 25, 2013) (Howard, J.).

For over eight years, Tenenbaum ignored the warnings of his father, his college and the music industry and continued to download and distribute thousands of songs he knew were copyrighted. In 2007 five record companies sued Tenenbaum under the Copyright Act for statutory damages and injunctive relief. The record companies only pursued claims for 30 songs, though Tenenbaum admitted at trial he had distributed as many as 5,000 songs. The trial court held as a matter of law that Tenenbaum had violated the Copyright Act and the jury found his violations were willful. The jury awarded $22,500 for each of Tenenbaum’s thirty violations (15 percent of the statutory maximum), for a total award of $675,000. The district court reduced the award to $67,500 finding that the jury’s award violated due process. The First Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment holding that the principle of constitutional avoidance required the court to first address the issue of remittitur before determining the due process question. On remand the district court determined remittitur was inappropriate and that the original $675,000 award comported with due process. Tenenbaum appealed the decision solely on due process grounds.

The Court reviewed two questions: what is the correct standard for evaluating the constitutionality of an award of statutory damages under the Copyright Act; and (b) did the $675,000 award violate Tenenbaum’s right to due process?

The 1st Circuit looked to St. Louis, I.M. & S. Ry. Co. v. Williams, not BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, as the proper standard for reviewing the constitutionality of statutory damages under the Copyright Act, noting that Gore applies to punitive damages and the concerns regarding fair notice to the parties of the range of possible awards were “simply not present in a statutory damages case where the statute itself provides notice of the scope of the potential award.” Under Williams, a statutory damage award only violates due process “where the penalty prescribed is so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportioned to the offense and obviously unreasonable.”

The 1st Circuit examined the purpose of the Copyright Act’s statutory damages and Tenenbaum’s behavior to determine if $675,000 met Williams’ standard for constitutionality. The 1st Circuit found that in 1999 Congress increased the Copyright Act’s minimum and maximum statutory awards specifically because of new technologies allowing illegal music downloading. The record companies presented evidence that Tenenbaum’s activities had led to the loss of value of its copyrights and reduced its income and profits—precisely the harm Congress foresaw. The Court went on to find that Tenenbaum’s conduct was egregious—he pirated thousands of songs for a number of years despite numerous warnings. The Court held that “much of this behavior was exactly what Congress was trying to deter when it amended the Copyright Act.” The 1st Circuit rejected Tenenbaum’s argument that the damages award had to be tied to the actual injury he caused, relying on Williams to find that the damages were imposed for a violation of the law and did not need to be proportional to the harm caused by the offender.