In a major setback for the recording industry, a Boston judge yesterday slashed by 90 percent a $675,000 damages award that a Boston University graduate student had been ordered to pay to four record labels for illegally downloading 30 songs and sharing them online.

US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner ruled that the amount a federal jury ordered Joel Tenenbaum to pay last July was "unconstitutionally excessive" in light of what she described as the modest harm caused to the record labels. She cut the award to $67,500, one-tenth the original sum.

"There is no question that this reduced award is still severe, even harsh," she wrote in a 62-page order. "It not only adequately compensates the plaintiffs for the relatively minor harm that Tenenbaum caused them; it sends a strong message that those who exploit peer-to-peer networks to unlawfully download and distribute copyrighted works run the risk of in curring substantial damages awards."

But the reduction, she said, also sends an equally important message that the constitutional protection against grossly excessive punitive awards in civil suits protects not only big corporations but "ordinary people like Joel Tenenbaum."

Full story: Boston Globe