After more than seven years and dozens of petitions, motions, and court appearances, the title fight over the future of music washed up on the South Boston waterfront this week.
Attorneys representing the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and embattled Boston University doctoral student Joel Tenenbaum met for a much-anticipated re-match at Moakley Courthouse this past Monday. There, onlookers watched the latest chapter unfold in one of the most contested cases yet addressing online copyright laws — a spat that first erupted when a teenage Tenenbaum was caught downloading and sharing music from his parents' Providence home in 2003.
But while both sides addressed potential future repercussions of the case, their audience was a United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that is stuck in the past. One of the three judges — 77-year-old Juan R. Torruella — openly conceded his utter unfamiliarity. "I'm sorry to take up your time with a very elementary question," Torruella said to RIAA attorneys, "but I don't understand the mechanics of how this infringement works."
A civil complaint was formally filed against Tenenbaum in 2007, when Sony BMG Music Entertainment and four other companies sued him for downloading and distributing music in violation of copyright laws. After admitting to illegally ripping and sharing 30 songs, in 2009 Tenenbaum was ordered by a federal jury to pay a total of $675,000 in damages. Last year, a US District Court judge in Boston lowered the sum to $67,500 — a ruling that satisfied neither party, and left many questions open about copyright laws on the new frontier.
Tenenbaum's is the first case of its kind to reach the appellate level, and his team — headed by renowned Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson — came prepared for the challenge. Teeing off the defense argument was Jason Harrow, a Harvard Law student who, at 27 years old, is the same age as Tenenbaum, and a peer of many of the tens of thousands of people who have been sued by the RIAA since 2003 (most settled out of court for less than $5000).
In the coming months, court of appeals judges will sort through the arguments. The plaintiff has asked them to consider Tenenbaum as a renegade who "willfully" "eroded" copyright laws. The defense is pleading that the statutes under which Tenenbaum was punished were never meant to apply to consumers in the first place.
"We're living in a different time," Tenenbaum told the Phoenix outside the courtroom, "and that seems to be the whole problem here."