How Sharing Movie Clips May Get You Jail Time

How Sharing Movie Clips May Get You Jail Time

May 26, 2011

Now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, the government can focus its time and vast resources on capturing a new breed of dangerous criminal: anyone who streams copyrighted material on the Internet. That’s right, lock your doors because these dangerous madmen are walking amongst us – but not for long, if new legislation sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Cornyn (R-TX) makes it into law. Under that proposal, nefarious online streamers would be hit with felony charges and could face up to five years in prison.

Hyperbolic joking aside (at least for a moment), the text of new bill S. 978 would amend current copyright infringement laws so that online streaming of copyrighted material would join “distributing” and “reproducing” as felony offenses. Currently, streaming is considered “public performance” and has been exempt from prosecution.

Website Ars Technica has received a copy of the proposal. Here’s the breakdown. If S. 978 passes into law, online streamers who do the following could face up to five years in prison and a hefty fine if their violations meet the following criteria:

• They show 10 or more "public performances" by electronic means in any 180-day period and

• The total retail value of those performances tops $2,500 or the cost of licensing such performances is greater than $5,000

While no one knows any of the fine details of the new Bill, it would seem to be aimed primarily at people who go on websites like Justin.TV and stream television shows and sporting events to viewers around the globe. However, many wonder what this will mean for sites like YouTube, where viewers upload favorite clips from movies, television shows, music, and sporting events for others to see and enjoy. Will those copyrighted materials also be part of the law should it pass? (Though it's important to note that YouTube has gone to great lengths to protect themselves and their videos.) What about websites (like this one) where we post clips? Could the Feds come barging into our houses at 3 AM with their guns drawn to bust us for copyright infringement? These are the questions that need answers.

Naturally, the MPAA and theater owners are all for this – and the MPAA has their lobbyists in the Capital to help push the bill along. In a statement, The MPAA’s Government Affairs head Michael O’Leary praises Senators Klobuchar and Cornyn, stating “criminals are stealing, trafficking, and profiting off the investment that our workers devote to creating the quality films and TV shows that entertain a worldwide audience and bolster the American economy... We thank Senators Klobuchar and Cornyn for introducing this important legislation to standardize the legal treatment of online content theft and helping ensure that federal law keeps pace with the changing face of criminal activity."

We do not condone the theft of films, music, videogames or any other copyrighted material, but this legislation seems a bit broad and far-reaching. It’s particularly hilarious to hear O’Leary praise the government for “keeping pace with the changing face of criminal activity.” The only people more behind the federal government when it comes to keeping pace with online theft are the movie and music industry and the guys in charge of Sony’s Playstation Network. Yet again, the MPAA demonstrates that it’s stuck in the past – and if S. 978 were to somehow become law, it will succeed in doing little to curb Internet piracy. Casual users with little tech knowledge will get busted while the big-time pirates will simply find new ways to circumnavigate the system – kinda like the movie and music industry’s attempts to bust big-time torrenters. Of course, if they can strong-arm grandmothers in the midwest into settling for thousands of dollars to avoid litigation because little Susie came over and downloaded the new Lady Gaga album, then maybe they can work their mojo here too.

What the MPAA and RIAA and every other AA out there outside of Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t seem to get is that the horse has already left the barn – and he’s running wild three counties over. Internet piracy is a Pandora ’s Box that’s been open since everyone discovered Napster. It’s unlikely it will ever be closed. Rather than try to legislate and criminalize people’s online behavior, these industries would be better served by trying to come up with ways to deliver this content to the masses at an affordable price (and no, $30 for a PPV version of a movie still in the theaters is not affordable…) and in a convenient manner. Online entertainment isn’t the way of the future – it’s the way of now. Clinging to outdated distribution modes and the old way of thinking about how consumers want their entertainment is what got us all here in the first place. Instead of wasting time and money busting YouTube users for posting copyrighted content, find a way to coerce the public into paying for that content online. It seems to work for Netflix and Hulu.

Instead, we remain convinced that the studios and executives will continue to be myopically shortsighted about these things. Some people will always pirate – it’s inevitable – but legislation like this seems unlikely to change the culture of entitlement that permeates this country. In fact, cynics like myself see it far more likely to encourage people to break the law than toe the line.

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