Boston student Joel Tenenbaum is the poster child of an entire generation of downloaders, and one of the few people to stand up against the RIAA instead of signing off on a settlement. This decision proved to be a costly one for Tenenbaum, who now has to pay $67,500 in damages to the record labels for sharing 7 songs. In an interview he now looks back at recent years.
The case of Boston student Joel Tenenbaum against the RIAA has been dragging on for half a decade already. Last year, a jury found Tenenbaum guilty of “willful infringement” and awarded damages mounting to $675,000.
In July this year judge Nancy Gertner ruled that the penalty was excessive and unconstitutional and the jury-awarded damages were subsequently reduced by 90%.
Soon after this judgment both the RIAA and Tenenbaum appealed once again, and the case continues. Although many scholars, journalists and commenters have discussed this high profile case in detail over the years, Joel himself hasn’t shared his thoughts that often.
But, for an introductory course on the production of digital media, Joel is opening up. Brett Caraway, a lecturer in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas informed us about the newly launched discussion platform on copyright issues. One of the first of many high profile individuals involved in recent P2P litigation that is featured on the site is Joel Tenenbaum.
“The intention of the site is to bring together interested parties with various perspectives and have them interact with students and each other. It is my hope that my students and the public can find something of value in these discussions which will help them make up their own minds,” Caraway told us.
With permission we’re posting the interview with Joel Tenenbaum here. Those interested in discussions around copyright issues should keep a close eye on the Copy Grounds website. Coming up are guest posts from MPAA’s Fritz Attaway, former porn star Jennifer Ketcham and many others.
Joel Tenenbaum Interview
1. I download hundreds of songs every month from artists very few people know about that have a lot more to lose than the popular ones you downloaded from and I’m not going to get in trouble. Does that seem fair to you?
Joel: Well, no. It’s not fair. Then again, it’s not fair that out of 40,000 people who have been sued for file-sharing, I was the one who was was lucky enough to have my parents behind me, Professor Charles Nesson and his colleagues, and dedicated passionate students working for free to help me out. I might be unlucky, but I’m also damn lucky for what I’ve been given and for who I have standing with me.
2. Did you plan to fight against the RIAA to this extent, or did it just slowly escalate into what it is today?
Joel: I didn’t plan to fight at all. I wasn’t looking to become the “poster child” for all file-sharers. I tried to settle — multiple times. I offered $500 from the outset and $5250 in court, but by then, this offer was apparently not enough for the music labels. And besides, the idea that someone could just call you up and ask you for thousands of dollars, showing no hard evidence, without your getting a fair day’s representation in court seemed absurd.
3. What are you hoping to change by “fighting back” against the RIAA? Of course you understand that peer to peer file sharing has to be controlled in some way, so if it were up to you, how would the problem of file sharing be handled?
Joel: I’m not “hoping to change” anything. The RIAA sued me. I just want to have a fair day in court for the allegations against me. I’m not the one who can dismiss the lawsuit. Maybe the better question is: What are they hoping to change?
4. Has this ordeal changed the way people treat you?
Joel: Every time I appear in the Metro (the free Boston paper) all my friends and my graduate advisor get a kick out of it. Most people that recognize me are generally appreciative and tell me to stick with it. Thankfully, no one seems to be as hostile in person to me as I’ve seen on the internet.
5. Joel, I am curious as to whether your focus with your case is to argue simply that peer to peer file sharing is completely fair, or if you’re arguing that the way the RIAA is approaching these cases is unjust? One of the questions I have for Joel Tenenbaum is, “What do you feel your punishment should be for illegally downloading music and sharing files, do you believe you should face consequences at all?”
Joel: I’m not saying that file-sharing is right. I’m not saying that it’s wrong either. What I’m saying is that file-sharing is. What I’m fighting in court is that $675,000 — and even $67,500 — for 30 songs is unjust. Turns out that you can NOT use a civil law suit to “deter” other individuals: it’s an abuse of court. And so, “making an example” out of me to scare others is more than just unfair. I wouldn’t be averse to some sort of penalty in line with 99 cents per song or somewhere remotely in that neighborhood if the RIAA can actually show harm, which they haven’t.
6. If you somehow knew that this much of a fuss would be caused for downloading 7 songs, would you still do this to prove this point?
Joel: Complicated question, and a tempting one, I know. Charlie Kaufman writes, “There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make.” I’m grateful for how things have gone. Had this not happened, I wouldn’t have had the experiences I’ve had and met all the amazing people that I’ve met. But again, I’m not doing this to prove a point. I didn’t start the lawsuit. They’re the ones with a point to prove.
7. In your opinion, should lawsuits such as these even exist? In other words, do you even recognize what you did as wrong, or do you think that the RIAA is stepping outside of its bounds to prosecute?
Joel: I believe that the RIAA has the right to pursue what they believe they are entitled to under the law of the land just as I have the right to speak out against them and defend myself. That’s the way our court system works. But the way the “scales of justice” are weighed down on their side; in a way, they get to buy more “justice” by having the deep pockets necessary to pay dozens of lawyers to fabricate an interpretation out of a statute we believe wasn’t intended. They use raw power to silence anyone who dares say otherwise… that’s an abuse of taxpayer money, resources, and one of the most respected justice systems in the world.
8. By and large, have netizens had a positive outlook on the case, or a negative one?
Joel: You can get a decent sense of the proportions just looking at the comments on our blog, youtube videos, or the comments of the articles themselves. They seem to come out 5:1 in favor of us. I did a radio show and people called in: same comments, same ratio. The archetypes are:
9. Why do you feel you have the right to these files? Do you not think you should support the artists that you think are good? Also, do you simply amass files that you rarely listen to, or do you get rid of what you don’t like/want/need?
Joel: I like music. I like to listen to it. I listen to it the way everyone around me listens to it. I’m not pioneering a new distribution system that makes sure everyone can get music for free. I’m just jumping in the pool with everyone else. I also believe and have always believed that artists I derive enjoyment from deserve to be paid for their work. There’s this image of me as the “FREE MUSIC” guy who refuses to pay on principle that’s just flat-out untrue. I often have bought music as a result of the free exploration I’ve done. In that respect, I’m much like the average downloader, who actually spends more money on music than people who don’t download at all.
10. How does Joel envision the future of the music industry?
Joel: I hope it will be a vibrant place, full of sharing, creativity, and the ability for artists to connect straight to their fans without legal intervention. Other than that, I’ll have to rely on the visionary expertise of John Perry Barlow, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, who’s been around a lot longer than me, and has the benefit of greater perspective I don’t. Barlow wrote: