COVID relief bill brings harsher penalties for online content pirates

(Image: Lord Jim/Flickr Creative Commons, Graphic: Descrier)

The economic recovery and stimulus bill working its way through Congress contains several provisions that would benefit the entertainment industry, including a rider that would make illegal streaming of copyrighted content a felony offense.

The amendment to the U.S. Copyright Act starts on page 2,539 of the 5,593-page economic stimulus bill that was sent to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for debate on Monday.

Under the amended law, streaming a copyrighted movie or TV program could be construed as a felony that could earn an offender up to 10 years in prison per charge. The amendment requires prosecutors to prove that an operator of an illegal streaming service did so for commercial or personal financial gain.

The amendment mirrors similar proposals made by two lawmakers within the past year. Last year, a proposal by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota worried some advocacy groups that the law as amended under her bill could be used to target people who post covers of popular songs on YouTube.

A similar proposal made earlier this month by Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina eased some of those concerns, though some consumer advocacy groups still pushed back, saying it unnecessarily introduced additional prohibitions in the U.S. Copyright code.

“As a general matter, we do not see the need for further criminal penalties for copyright infringement,” Meredith Rose, a senior policy attorney for Public Knowledge, said in a statement. Of the two policies, the group said it favored Tillis’ because it was less-stringent than earlier proposals.

The proposals put forth in the economic stimulus bill are almost certain to pass since Congress has signaled its intention to approve the measure and President Donald Trump has promised to sign it into law. Once enacted, it would make it easier for federal and state prosecutors to target individuals and illicit companies who offer pay TV channels on cheap streaming services through Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and Roku hardware. Many of these companies simply pull signals from existing cable or satellite services, then re-transmit them for free or at a discount rate without getting permission from content owners and programmers first.

But it would likely not have an immediate effect on Locast, a streaming TV service that re-broadcasts local TV stations over the Internet. Locast doesn’t get permission from stations before re-sending their over-the-air signal through the Internet; instead, the company points to a loophole in federal copyright law that exempts not-for-profit organizations that re-distribute broadcast signals. The economic stimulus bill introduced on Monday doesn’t close the loophole, meaning Locast — which operates as a not-for-profit organization — appears safe for now.