It is clear that Joel Tenenbaum broke the law when, as a 20-year-old student, he downloaded 30 songs from the Internet. And it’s also clear that his lawyer erred in presenting the case as test of Internet freedom. Tenenbaum is guilty, and he should pay. But the amount that a jury determined he must pay — $675,000 — flies in the face of common sense. It is far in excess of what is necessary to punish him and deter others from committing similar crimes. This punishment turns justice into an injustice.
It is unlikely that Tenenbaum, who just graduated from Boston University with a PhD in physics, will ever be able pay off this amount, which was awarded to four record companies in 2009. The huge sum stands in stark contrast to the $3,500 that the Recording Industry Association of America initially asked him to pay to avoid a lawsuit. Faced with similar threatening letters from the recording industry, thousands of other music-sharers simply paid up. Tenenbaum didn’t. He sent in a money order for $500, explaining that was all he could afford. The $675,000 penalty serves as a warning to anyone who dares to defy the recording industry.