US Congress passes COVID-19 stimulus bill that would make illegal streaming a felony

Targeting illegal for-profit streaming providers, not individual users

The US Congress has passed a COVID-19 stimulus bill that includes an anti-piracy proposal that would punish for-profit, illegal streaming services with felony penalties of up to 10 years in jail.

Passed by Congress on Monday night (December 21), the US$900billion stimulus package will revive unemployment benefits and launch a round of $600 stimulus payments to many Americans, among other provisions.

The 5,000-page bill also includes a proposal by Republican senator Thom Tillis, introduced less than two weeks ago, that aims to increase the penalty for operating a for-profit illegal streaming service, writes the Hollywood Reporter.

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The bill proposes criminal penalties for operators of commercial sites who “willfully, and for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain, offer or provide to the public a digital transmission service” of unauthorised media.

Those penalties include fines and prison sentences of up to three years, or five if “the person knew or should have known that the work was being prepared for commercial public performance”. The sentences rises to up to 10 years for multiple offences.

This will not apply to individuals who access pirated streams or “unwittingly” stream unauthorised copies of copyrighted work. People who might use pirate streaming services will not be affected.

“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,” Tillis commented in a statement.

Public Knowledge, a Washington-based organisation that promotes freedom of expression and an open internet, responded to Tillis’ proposal earlier this month. Its Senior Policy Counsel Meredith Rose commented, “As a general matter, we do not see the need for further criminal penalties for copyright infringement.

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“However, this bill is narrowly tailored and avoids criminalizing users, who may do nothing more than click on a link, or upload a file. It also does not criminalize streamers who may include unlicensed works as part of their streams.”

As Deadline points out, the passing of such legislature would mark one of the first wins for anti-piracy campaigners in the US in years, after the industry’s attempt to push the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012 was met with backlash and eventually dismissed.

The bill also reportedly seeks to introduce a small claims court for copyright holders to pursue. The CASE Act would see cases heard by a board established through the United States Copyright Office. Participation would be voluntary.

The Case Act had previously passed the House with a 410-6 vote, but was blocked in the Senate by Oregon senator Ron Wyden.

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