Free Justin Bieber? The Commercial Felony Streaming Act

A couple weeks ago, S. 978, the Commercial Felony Streaming Act, was a relatively mundane bill. Aiming to crack down on illegal streaming and internet piracy, the legislation attracted little interest beyond the creative industry associations and the Internet freedom community. It passed the Senate Judiciary easily in June and appeared headed for the Senate floor.

Then, Justin Bieber spoke. Claiming repeatedly in a radio interview that bill sponsor Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) should be “locked up”, Bieber launched S. 978 firmly into the public spotlight. A key opponent organization had launched FreeBieber.org with the message that the Commercial Felony Streaming Act would have jailed the teen singer for posting his renditions of popular songs on YouTube, and Bieber’s comments attracted attention well beyond the core political community.

While the validity of FreeBieber.org’s specific claim is questionable, it does highlight the potentially troublesome vagueness of this legislation and provides a valuable window into the uglier side of the legislative process. As happens all too often Capitol Hill, S. 978 appears to have been crafted by industry interest groups and shepherded along by allied elected officials with little fanfare. Such scenarios leave the public limited opportunity for meaningful feedback, and the lack of checks and balances could lead to unintended consequences without further clarification. That said, it is highly unlikely that regulators would use the Commercial Felony Streaming Act to target YouTube users en masse.

As always, see below the fold for the one-pager.

90 Second Summaries: Season 2, Episode 27
S. 978: Commercial Felony Streaming Act
Introduced 5/12/2011
Sponsor: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

Cosponsors: 2 (Sens. Coons (D-DE) and Cornyn (R-TX)). Full list at: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:SN00978:@@@P

Status: Reported by Senate Judiciary Committee on June 20th with broad bipartisan support, but not scheduled for floor action.

House Companion: None as of November 7th.

Purpose: In the realm of intellectual property and copyright law, the Internet presents a major challenge for regulators. The explosion of online audiovisual distribution methods such as YouTube has made sharing of content, both original and copyright, easier than ever. Concerned about the ability to protect their investments and crack down on free distribution of their content, the recording and film industry associations and guilds have called on Congress to toughen the laws governing unauthorized distribution of their copyrighted content. This legislation is primarily a response to the demands of these constituencies.

Summary: S. 978 makes unauthorized web streaming of copyright content a felony punishable by up to 5 years in jail, and 10 years for a repeat offense. It applies if the streamed content:

• Is posted 10 or more times over the course of any 180-day period;
• Is a public performance of one or more copyrighted works (especially songs, books, and movies);
• Is worth over $2,500 to either the distributor of the content or the owner of the copyright, or the cost of licensing that content would be over $5,000.

This bill recently entered the public spotlight when teenage singer Justin Bieber claimed Sen. Klobuchar should be “locked up” for sponsoring S. 978. Mr. Bieber is the subject of a major opposition campaign against the bill, claiming he would have been jailed for posting the now-famous YouTube videos that launched his career.

Ms. Klobuchar’s office has stated that the bill is not designed to apply to such a scenario, but the language is vague enough that regulators might have the legal standing to act against any future Biebers if they chose to do so. However, full enforcement of such stringent regulations under that reading would be both cost-prohibitive and monumentally unpopular, so that particular outcome is highly unlikely.

CBO Score: No significant costs estimated. Full analysis: http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/122xx/doc12277/s978.pdf

Supporters: Most of the political establishment, music and film industry associations, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, etc.

• Supporters view the rising tide of online theft of copyright works as a direct threat to artists’ livelihoods and a disincentive for entertainers to create orignal content. To them, this measure is important in helping halt that trend.

Opponents: Electronic Freedom Foundation, Fight the Future (FreeBieber.org), etc.

• Opponents see this legislation as an extreme solution to a nonexistent problem, designed to protect the profits of entrenched and politically connected industries at the expense of a free Internet. They argue the vague wording of the bill could lead to unintended consequences and stifle artistic innovation in its own right.

Further links
Full bill text: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=s112-978
Official CRS Summary: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:SN00978:@@@D&summ2=m&
EFFpost about the bill’s broad scope: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/06/felony-penalties-proposed-illegal-streaming-senate
Free Bieber website opposing the bill: http://freebieber.org/
Joint statement from unions and guilds supporting the bill: http://www.aftra.org/AA43BCDF417B4AF680163DDEC71E5D72.htm

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