Supreme Court silent on illegal music downloads

Joel Tenenbaum
Joel Tenenbaum

(CBS News) It's become routine to buy and share music online.

However, a Boston man is still in big trouble for songs he downloaded years ago, when he was in high school.

On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, leaving him on the hook for nearly $700,000 in fines.

Even though the way we experience and buy music has changed in the years since the illegal downloads happened, the case is still being hotly contested in court.

That's because what's at stake for the music industry is enormous.

Nirvana, Green Day and Incubus are just some of the artists Joel Tenenbaum has admitted to downloading and sharing - 30 songs in all - now costing him $22,500 each.

"I find it hard to believe that the legal system would uphold a six-figure sum against someone just for downloading music," he says.

Tenenbaum, who received his doctorate earlier this week, has no idea how he'll pay up.

"I have to declare bankruptcy. I don't have that money," he says.

And according to CNET Senior Writer Greg Sandoval, that's exactly the message the music industry wants to send.

"What they want to show people is, 'Hey, if you pirate our music, if you take it without compensating us, you're going to suffer,"' Sandoval observes.

Sandoval says the case is a reminder of a time illegal music downloads ran rampant.

"This case is a remnant," Sandoval says. "It's left over from an era when they had no clue how to fight piracy. And the first thing they thought was, 'Let's sue."'

And sue they did.

Sandoval says the record labels have probably spent "tens of millions of dollars" in legal fees on Tenenbaum's case alone.

Nowadays, many people still do what Tenenbaum did -- download and share music -- but they do so legally.

And even though the industry no longer sues individual downloaders, it won't drop Tenenbaum's case because it doesn't want to look like it's giving up the fight against piracy offline.

"The sad fact is," says Sandoval, "the guy who's downloading from his basement a few songs a month is subject to the same law that's applied to these Mafia-type organized crime guys who are distributing millions of CDs."

Through a spokesman, the Recording Industry Association of America said, "We're pleased with the decision," but declined to be interviewed on-camera.

"They are trying to create an urban legend out of me," Tenenbaum asserts, "that it's not about extracting any kind of money from me. ... It's about the rhetorical power of that example."

The case now returns to a federal judge in Boston, who will be asked to decide whether the fine against Tenenbaum will stand, or if it should be reduced for being excessive.

The recoding industry says that, early-on, it offered Tenenbaum a chance to settle the case for only $5,000, but he rejected the offer.