Omnibus Bill Makes Pirating Video Streams a Felony

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It appears that by day's end, and with the stroke of the President's pen on the omnibus funding bill, pirating video streams will now be punishable by fines and prison time, rather than simply treated as a misdemeanor.

That is because a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Tillis (R-N.C.)  to that effect that then made it onto the must-pass omnibus bill that keeps the government afloat, according to a copy of the bill.

At one point it was thought the bill would be added to the COVID-19 relief bill, or that there would be one large bill, but it wound up on the $1.4 trillion omnibus bill that would keep the government running past midnight.

Studios, independent producers, and unions have pushed for at least a decade without success to get Congress to make stealing video streams a felony, as it is for illegally copying and distributing copyrighted TV shows and movies. But that was before must-see TV had morphed into "must stream video," as FCC chairman Ajit Pai put it earlier this week, with the COVID-19 pandemic putting an even bigger spotlight on streaming as a way for folks to remotely entertain themselves.

Fox was said to have put a priority on closing the streaming loophole after the company got more into live programming after the sale of its Fox film and TV studios to Disney. 

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Currently, a pirated stream is treated as an illegal performance, which is a misdemeanor, rather than illegal reproduction and distribution, which is a felony. Making it a felony would mean larger penalties, potential prison time, both of which would be a greater deterrent.

The TIllis bill is targeted to large-scale, criminal, for profit, streaming services, not good faith business disputes or noncommercial activities. It does not target individuals who access the pirated streams or unwittingly stream unauthorized copies of copyrighted works.

Also Read: DOJ: Make Unauthorized Streaming a Felony

Co-sponsors of the legislation include Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), and David Perdue (R-Ga.).

The Obama Administration asked Congress to "clarify" that streaming illegal content, as well as downloading it, was a felony, an effort pushed by then White House Intellectual Property Enforcement coordinator Victoria Espinel, but ultimately to no avail. Among the senators supporting that bipartisan legislative effort were Leahy, Coons, and Cornyn.

“The shift toward streaming content online has resulted in criminal streaming services illegally distributing copyrighted material that costs the U.S. economy nearly $30 billion every year, and discourages the production of creative content that Americans enjoy,” said Senator Tillis in a statement. “I am proud this commonsense legislation that was drafted with the input of creators, user groups, and technology companies will become law so we can target criminal organizations and ensure that no individual streamer has to worry about the fear of prosecution. I want to thank Senator Leahy and Representatives Martha Roby and Ben Cline for their early partnership on this important issue.”

“At a time when an unprecedented number of Americans are streaming movies and TV shows, music and books, criminal organizations are exploiting a loophole in copyright law to steal online content at an unprecedented rate and with hardly a consequence,” said Sen. Leahy. “Commercial piracy costs the economy billions of dollars and hurts both the creative community and consumers. This narrow bill closes this loophole by targeting only commercial, for-profit criminal piracy, and I am proud to have supported it.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.