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The ongoing saga of Joel Tenenbaum

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If you keep up to date with developments in the digital music world – and seeing as you’re already reading the BAMM website, we’re gonna go ahead and assume you’re pretty clued up – you’re probably familiar with the ongoing story of Joel Tenenbaum, a former Boston University student who was fined $675,000 by the RIAA for illegally downloading and sharing 30 songs on the internet.

Tenenbaum decided to fight his corner. Viewing the punishment as deeply out of perspective, Joel enlisted legal assistance and took the RIAA to court (with the help of Harvard professor Charles Nesson). A federal judge agreed that the punishment was excessive, but it was alas reinstated by a court of appeal.

Infact, if you want to know the story in full, just spare a few minutes to take a listen to this episode of BAMM Insights, in which we interviewed Tenenbaum himself:

Enjoy that? Good (and there are several more episodes of Insights you should check out too, covering a wide range of digital and music issues). Now take a peek at this BAMM.tv clip in which our very own Phil Lang examines both sides of the piracy/punishment argument:

Why are we bringing this issue up today? Because Joel’s most recent appeal has failed, and he’s still in the firing line for that none-too-pleasant 675K fine. Joel just graduated on Sunday, and – while he’s no doubt justifiably proud of his achievement – this ongoing saga can’t help but take the shine off that.

The thing is this: let’s look at the consensus here. In the episode of Insights posted above, Joel admits breaking the law, and is more than ‘happy’ to accept an appropriate punishment. The key word here is appropriate. If you were to hit the streets right now and ask people what the punishment for illegal file-sharing should be, what sort of answer do you think you’d get (barring any RIAA employees you might happen to bump into)? A relatively small fine – maybe five hundred or a thousand dollars? A brief stint of community service? Something in perspective, surely, because the vast majority of people have either a) dabbled in the world of the online five-finger discount themselves, or b) agree with Paul Resnikoff (see above video) that it’s a crime on a par with a traffic violation. Illegal, yep, and you’ll get your day in court. But you won’t be destroyed.

What will happen if Joel refuses to pay up? Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t have a spare $675,000 down the back of the sofa. Will he face jail time? Music pirates have been sent to prison in the past – admittedly for far greater offences, but nonetheless precedents have been set.

No-one would deny the right of artists to get paid, nor that those who steal music should be punished. But look at it this way – someone who illegally downloads music could theoretically face a prison sentence. Conrad Murray, the doctor convicted of the manslaughter of Michael Jackson, was sentenced to four years in jail. Conclusion: there’s not too much difference between the punishment for downloading a Michael Jackson song and killing Michael Jackson. Is that fair?

What are your thoughts on the issue? Feel free to share in the comments box below.

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