New Bill Would Finally Make Illegal Streaming a Felony

Capitol Building

A long-time effort to boost penalties for pirated video streams may have finally met its moment, that being the combination of the explosion of streaming content and over-the-top distribution channels and a COVID-19-sequestered populace for whom online video has become an entertainment lifeline.

Free State Foundation's Seth Cooper, in a blog post late Thursday (Dec. 17) pointed out that the bipartisan Protecting Lawful Streaming Act, which would up those penalties, was at press time still attached to an omnibus spending bill that needs to pass to prevent a government shutdown. That is not to be confused with the COVID-19 aid bill also being worked on, or the Defense authorization bill that just passed but the President has threatened to veto.

Studios, independent producers, and unions have pushed for at least a decade 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.

Also Read: FCC Chair Says OTT is Now Must-Stream Video

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.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who introduced the new bill last week, says it 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.

“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 Sen. Tillis of his bill. “This commonsense legislation was drafted with the input of creators, user groups, and technology companies and is narrowly targeted so that only criminal organizations are punished and that no individual streamer has to worry about the fear of prosecution."

Also Read: DOJ Says Make Unauthorized Streaming a Felony

He pointed out that fair use fans like Public Knowledge are neutral on the bill. 

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. Among the senators supporting that bipartisan legislative effort were Leahy, Coons, and Cornyn.

"Budgetary issues aside, the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act is strong on its own merits," said Cooper in his blog post. "In whatever legislative vehicle proves most practical, Congress should pass the bill and the President should sign 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.