Stream a Youtube Video, Go Directly to Jail

Welcome to the United States of the RIAA: A new bill that just flew through a U.S. Senate committee could make embedding copyrighted videos a crime, punishable by five years in the pokey.

In effect, the bill is pretty simple. Senate Bill 978 takes existing copyright laws that make the reproduction and distribution of copyrighted works a felony and adds the pungent phrase "public performances by electronic means" (that is, video streaming) to the list of things that can land you in the slammer.

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The reason for the change? Because copyright czar Victoria Espinel asked for it. Right now, streaming copyrighted works is a misdemeanor. If this bill passes the full Senate and House, then gets signed by the President, that changes.

There are other rules before felony charges kick in. The video has to be seen by at least 10 people over the course of 180 days and must deprive copyright owners of at least $2,500 in potential income.

Of course, it would be hard to imagine an online video that was seen by fewer than 10 people in six months, and given how highly the RIAA values a single song -- as much as $80,000 per tune, as file-swapping mom Jammie Thomas-Rassett discovered -- the $2,500 barrier is about as effective as damp toilet paper.

CopyHype blogger Terry Hart says fears about people being thrown into jail for embedding the wrong YouTube video are overblown -- not because the law won't allow it, but because prosecutors won't waste their time and budgets chasing small fish.

The worry that S.978 will lead to prisons overflowing with people for sharing online videos that happen to be infringing is overblown....

The standard for establishing criminal copyright liability is much higher than civil liability. Prosecutions for criminal copyright infringement under existing law are rare. According to the Administrative Office of the US Courts, less than 50 people are charged with a criminal copyright offense every year. There's no reason to think that this number will change drastically because of S.978.

That doesn't mean some overzealous prosecutor won't go after Joe or Jane YouTube to build a name for himself, make an example of someone he doesn't like or because he's having a bad hair day.

This bill is yet another step away from a public creative commons that benefits everyone, not just deep-pocketed copyright holders, and another step toward making the U.S. government -- and the taxpayers who fund it -- the enforcement arm for private industry.

The fine folks at MapLight.org have followed the money trail from the coffers of the copyright barons into the campaign chests of Congress. Since 2005, organizations ranging from the American Federation of Musicians to Viacom -- and all the usual suspects in between -- have ponied up some $85 million in contributions to elected representatives on both sides of the aisle.

In this instance, though, the Democrats have their snouts most deeply into the trough: Sen. Bob Casey from Pennsylvania tops the list of recipients at $4 million, followed closely by Nevada's Harry Reid ($3.6 million), New York's Kirsten Gillibrand ($3.4 million), and California's Barbara Boxer ($3 million). All told, 31 members of Congress received at least $1 million from the 45 organizations supporting this bill, all but five of them Dems.

I'm not trying to make a partisan political point here, necessarily -- both sides have industries that butter their bread -- but Hollywood's copyright police clearly favor the Dems, and vice versa.

Of course, the music, movie, and publishing industries weren't just spending $85 million to buy this bill; they were buying all other pro-industry copyright bills, too. It's less like a bribe and more like having their pet Senators and Congress members on a leash.

I believe Congress is sincere in its desire to target organized commercial counterfeiters and not Joe or Jane YouTube, though the language of this bill is sure to be interpreted in stupid ways. Still, wouldn't it be great if we had an organization that worked to secure the rights of all individuals and not just the financial interests of a handful of multi-billion-dollar corporations? One that operated for the benefit of We, the people?

Damn that phrase sounds familiar. Wonder where I've seen it.

Should online video streaming land you in jail? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Stream a YouTube video, go directly to jail," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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