U.S. Bill To Criminalize Illicit Movie / Music Streaming

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Three U.S. Senators have introduced a bill that would make streaming unauthorized music, movies and TV-shows a felony. The bill is said to address a gap in current legislation where streaming is not considered a criminal offense. The question is whether the new legislation is really needed though, as the authorities have already started several criminal investigations into movie streaming sites in recent months.

In March, the White House published a white paper with several recommendations on how to make copyright law compliant with the digital age. Among other things, it suggests classifying unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material as a felony and to allow for wiretaps in copyright related cases.

The first suggestion has now been turned into a bill that Senators Amy Klobuchar, John Cornyn and Christopher Coons officially introduced last week. The bill (S. 978) was presented in the same week as the PROTECT IP Act, another major anti-piracy bill designed to clamp down on sites that facilitate online copyright infringement.

If adopted, the bill will criminalize sites that offer streams of copyrighted content (such as YouTube) if they don’t act within the boundaries of the law. Under current definitions the law considers streaming to be a “public performance” instead of “reproduction and distribution.”

Under the new bill, streaming sites (and users) will get the same treatment as the more traditional forms of file-sharing such as BitTorrent and direct downloads. This opens the door for the authorities to crack down on streaming sites more aggressively. But the big question, however, is whether this additional power is really needed.

Those who’ve followed the news about the U.S. Government crackdown on ‘unauthorized’ movie streaming sites in recent months might reasonably think that providing streams is already a felony. As part of “Operation in Our Sites” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) have already launched several criminal investigations into such sites.

One of the affected sites was Channelsurfing.net, a website where links to external sports streams were listed. The site itself did not offer any streams, it merely linked to streams that were offered by third-party sites. Nevertheless, ICE and HSI classified the site as a criminal operation and arrested the alleged owner, 32-year old Brian McCarthy from Texas.

McCarthy has been charged with criminal copyright infringement for “reproduction and distribution” of copyrighted material. In addition he was charged with aiding and abetting copyright infringement.

The above suggests that the authorities already treat streaming, or linking to streams, as a felony. This means that either the arrest of McCarthy and the seizures of a dozen domains last year were illegitimate, or that the new bill isn’t really needed to deal with streaming sites.

If the bill is adopted, streamers of copyrighted content face a maximum prison sentence of five years. This is the same sentence as Brian McCarthy is currently facing, even though he was arrested in March for ‘linking’ to streams.

The law can often be confusing, and apparently so confusing that it may even fool justice at times.

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