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Large fine upheld against BU grad for illegal song downloads

A federal appeals court upheld Tuesday a $675,000 fine issued against former Boston University student Joel Tenenbaum for illegally downloading and distributing music in violation of copyright law.

After Tenebaum was sued by a group of record companies, a jury in 2009 ordered him to pay $22,500 for each of the 30 songs he downloaded illegally.

Tenenbaum appealed the decision, arguing that the $675,000 award violated due process because it was not tied to the actual injury that he caused. He estimated the damages be no more than $450, or the cost of 30 albums at $15 each, according to the court opinion.


The court rejected his argument, stating that statutory damages are intended to have a deterrent effect and that the Supreme Court has previously determined that damages are not to be measured the way Tenebaum proposed.

The jury was told to impose damages, which are set by US copyright law, on a scale ranging between $750 and $150,000 per violation.

The court also said that the evidence presented against Tenenbaum by the group of record companies that sued him — Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Bros. Records Inc., Arista Records LLC, Atlantic Recording Corp., and UMG Recordings, Inc. — “easily justifies the conclusion that his conduct was egregious.

“Tenenbaum carried on his activities for years in spite of numerous warnings, he made thousands of songs available illegally, and he denied responsibility during discovery,” the court ruled. “Much of this behavior was exactly what Congress was trying to deter when it amended the Copyright Act.”

Tenenbaum is a 2012 graduate of Boston University with a doctorate in physics and is now a visiting scholar at the university.

In a statement issued Wednesday via Twitter, Tenenbaum said he and his legal team are “disappointed but not surprised” with the ruling.


“We will continue to exercise every legal option,” he said. “This is not over.”

Spokeswomen for two of the corporations involved, Sony and the Recording Industry Association of America, declined to comment.

The ruling is the latest episode in Tenenbaum’s long legal saga. After he was fined in 2009, US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner ruled in 2010 that the amount the federal jury ordered him to pay was “unconstitutionally excessive’’ and cut the award by 90 percent, to $67,500.

In 2011, a federal appeals court in Boston reinstated the $675,000 judgment. The decision stated that Gertner neglected a common law practice according to which she should have consulted both parties before setting a new amount or let a second jury reconsider the case. The Supreme Court decided not to hear Tenenbaum’s case in 2012 without issuing a comment.

Michael Meurer, a law professor at Boston University, said Tuesday’s ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals may help record companies pursue more individuals for copyright infringement, but added that companies have largely abandoned the tactic.

Javier Panzar can be reached at javier.panzar@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @jpanzar.