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What Parents Need to Tell Their Kids About Pirating Music

I am sharing Alayna Frankenberry‘s recent post from SPARK, the Kids+Creativity Network.  Visit to learn more about this collaborative network of peopleprojects, and organizations working at the intersection of Science, Technology, and the Arts to provide all children and youth with the best opportunity to learn and be creative.


Pirating Music Can Ruin Your Life – Yes, Really

by Alayna Frankenberry

When twenty-year-old Joel Tenenbaum was accused of pirating music in 2003, he had no idea he’d still be fighting the case nearly 10 years later. Nor did he have any clue that his illegal downloads would end up costing him $675,000 – all for only 31 songs.

August 23rd marked the end of Joel Tenenbaum’s lengthy court battle, and to say it didn’t go as he’d hoped is a bit of an understatement. U.S. District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel ruled against now 28-year-old Tenenbaum, denying an appeal of an earlier ruling in 2009. The damages set at that time fined the defendant with $675,000 – almost $22,000 per each of his 31 illegal downloads. Zobel chose to uphold the ruling.

The High Cost of Pirating Music

Think being charged $675,000 for 31 illegal downloads is a bit excessive? You’re not alone. Tenenbaum certainly agrees with you, along with his team of lawyers and the online support he’s garnered through his site The site claims that Joel’s legal battle is, “[…] not a vendetta. It’s just that Joel chose to stand his ground. It’s about defending the average Davids against the corporate Goliath.” But unlike the Biblical story from which Joel Tenenbaum drew inspiration, this story didn’t have a happy ending – unless you happen to be a record exec, of course.

So why the astronomical fees for what likely accounts for about two albums worth of music? It all comes down to copyright infringement laws. The plaintiffs, which were made up of recording companies Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Brothers Records, Inc., Atlantic Recording Corporation, Arista Records LLC, and UMG Recordings, Inc., charged Tenenbaum with illegally downloading music and distributing it using file sharing sites. In theU.S., a jury may fine a defendant for up to $150,000 for each instance of copyright infringement. Compare Joel’s $675,000 to the $4.65 million he could have been fined, and the insurmountable charges begin to look like something of a bargain.

At least that’s the attitude taken by Judge Zobel who said in his official statement, “[…] the award of $22,500 per infringement not only was at the low end of the range – only 15% of the statutory maximum – for willful infringement, but was below the statutory maximum for non-willful infringement.” Still, does a twenty-something whose only crime is downloading music deserve to be saddled with $675,000 in debt? Before you answer, take a moment to look at the evidence.

Pirating Music and Willful Infringement

First, it’s important to realize that although he was ultimately charged with the illegal downloading of 31 files, there was evidence showing his infringements reached far beyond those files alone. According to the judge’s ruling, “His illegal conduct lasted for at least eight years, from 1999 to 2007. […] During that time, he not only downloaded but also distributed thousands of copyrighted works to users of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.”

It wasn’t just these violations, but also the fact that they were entirely willful that led to Tenenbaum’s final charges. In Judge Zobel’s court statement, he details exactly how aware Tenenbaum was of his infractions:

“The trial evidence also supports the jury’s determination that Tenenbaum willfully infringed plaintiffs’ copyrights. He conducted his infringing activities while knowing that lawsuits were being brought against individuals who downloaded and distributed music without authorization. He personally received multiple warnings from various sources – including his father in 2002, his college in 2003, and plaintiffs in 2005 – and he was warned that his activities could subject him to liability of up to $150,000 per infringement. […] In spite of these warnings, he continued to download and distribute copyrighted materials; indeed, even after receiving Sony’s 2005 cease and desist letter, trial evidence shows that defendant continued his activities for two more years, until Sony filed this lawsuit against him.

Plaintiffs’ 2005 letter also informed Tenenbaum about the impact of his activities on the music industry and instructed him to preserve all evidence of his activities, including any recordings he made available for distribution; yet in spite of these instructions, Tenenbaum had his operating system on his laptop reinstalled and its hard drive reformatted. […] Furthermore, as the First Circuit noted, “[s]trong evidence established that Tenenbaum lied in the course of these legal proceedings in a number of ways.” […] At trial, Tenenbaum admitted that he lied in responding to Sony’s discovery requests about the scope of his conduct using online media distribution systems, his use of peer-to-peer networks, and the installment of such networks on his computer. When he was confronted at trial with his attempts to shift blame for his actions to others – including a foster child living in his family’s home, his sisters, a family house guest, and burglars – Tenenbaum finally admitted responsibility. […] In short, there was ample evidence of willfulness and the need for deterrence based on Tenenbaum’s blatant contempt of warnings and apparent disregard for the consequences of his actions.”

Not so much a misinformed kid as a willful violator, Tenenbaum clearly knew what he was doing and that what he was doing was illegal, and in light of these facts, he then continued to violate the law over the course of several years. Is $675,000 a terribly large sum to drop on someone who hasn’t even reached the age of 30? Undoubtedly, but it’s important to recognize that in this case, the defendant knew exactly what he was doing, and that the consequences for his actions could easily result in these types of fees.

What Parents Need to Tell Their Kids About Pirating Music

So what’s the takeaway here, and what can we learn from Joel Tenenbaum’s expensive mistakes? For one, we need to realize that pirated music and illegal downloads are real crimes, ones that record companies and other corporate giants can and will take to court. The fact that each file can result in up to $150,000 in fines should be a serious wakeup call to parents and kids who view pirating music as no big deal.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that Joel Tenenbaum wasn’t suddenly sidelined by a $675,000 bill. Rather, he received repeated warnings over the course of several years. Heeding these warnings early, or settling his debts before they skyrocketed could have saved him years of court fees and thousands of dollars in damages. So if you’re a parent who’s been silently weeping for the last five minutes because you fear you may have to remortgage your house to pay for your daughter’s illegal downloads of the One Direction discography, dry your eyes. The story of Joel Tenenbaum is not likely to become your child’s story anytime soon. It’s not likely to become anyone’s story unless they willfully and continuously violate copyright laws for nearly a decade.

So instead of sitting your kids down for a stern lecture on the dangers of pirating music, try having an open discussion with them instead. Learn about their online choices and help guide them to make better ones. Opening the lines of communication when it comes to your children’s lives online won’t just save them from copyright violations – it can save them from other illegal activities, cyber bullying and even online predators as well. So talk to your kids, and the next time you bulk at the idea of buying little Jenny that new Justin Bieber CD, consider how much it might cost you if she pirates it instead. $19.99 for a single album? Suddenly that doesn’t sound so bad.

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