This case needs a little history lesson, and El Reg thoughtfully provides us with one. In 2003, Tannenbaum (then 16) received a letter which accused him of downloading 7 songs from a P2P network, and the option to avoid further problems by paying a fine of USD 3500. Tenebaum made a counteroffer of 500 USD, but was denied. Nothing happened until 2007, when several recording companies took him to court, where Tenenbaum offered USD 5000 - the RIAA demanded 10500. No agreement was reached.
The case was never settled, and it still ongoing. Tenebaum is now a Physics grad student at Boston University, and is represented by law students from Harvard Law, mentored by Professor Charles Nesson. This is where things get complicated: the law students are not arguing against copyright, nor that Tenebaum has not violated it - they are arguing against what they call unconstitutionally heavy-handed damages that come from the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999, which states that for each willful act of copyright violation, damages of up to USD 150000 can be awarded.
Obama's DOJ has now sided unqeustionably with the RIAA. The DOJ's task is to weigh in on constitutional questions, and it has rejected all of the defendant's claims. The law students argue that the RIAA is acting as a civil enforcement entity, denying citizens of their right of due process. They argue that the RIAA should act like the private party that it is. The DOJ disagrees.
Despite all the speeches about change, it seems like Obama's government will not bring an end to the ridiculously overdone hunting down of people who download a few songs off the internet by the RIAA. Sadly, many other countries are moving in the same direction, with non-government organisations having the power to fine people without much of a trial. Organisations like the RIAA should walk along the path of the justice system like any other organisation, and the idea that they can just fine whoever they want is a scary one indeed.
We have to ask ourselves, what is more dangerous: grandmas violating copyright, or rogue organisations like the RIAA which seem to act outside of the justice system?
In my country, we have a similar situation. Our variant of the RIAA, BREIN, tries to hunt down downloaders of illegally offered content, even though our law is quite clear and specific [Dutch] that downloading illegally offered content falls within the "right to private copy", as long as it's not done with monetary gains in mind (to sell it, for instance). Even our Secretary of Justice has often stated in our parliament that there is no such thing as "illegal downloading" in The Netherlands, because our law does not consider it illegal at all. Still, BREIN goes all RIAA on a lot of Dutch people.
We are walking on a very slippery slope if we allow organisations like RIAA and BREIN to operate outside of the law. I had hoped Obama's new government would put the brake on the RIAA, but sadly, it seems like he's just as much a disaster as Bush in this regard.