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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Illegal Internet Streaming of Copyrighted Content: Legislation in the 112th Congress

Brian T. Yeh
Legislative Attorney

Technological developments related to the Internet benefit consumers who want convenient ways to view and hear information and entertainment content on a variety of electronic devices (such as televisions, radios, computers, mobile phones, video game consoles, and portable media players). New technologies offer the potential to help copyright holders promote their creative works for artistic, educational, and commercial reasons. However, new technologies may increase the risk of infringement of the copyright holders’ rights because they often provide faster, cheaper, and easier means of engaging in unauthorized reproduction, distribution, and public performance of copyrighted works than previous technologies. The widespread consumer use of high-speed Internet connections as well as increased reliance on data storage offered by “cloud computing” services may also contribute to infringement problems.

One of these new technologies enables the “streaming” of copyrighted content over the Internet from a website to an end user. There are many legitimate streaming websites such as Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and HBO GO that offer on-demand streams of television programs, motion pictures, live sporting events, and sound recordings. However, streaming technology can also be misused for facilitating copyright infringement online. So-called “rogue” websites serve as an alternative to the authorized websites, willfully streaming unlawfully obtained copyrighted content to users and thereby infringing the copyright holder’s exclusive right to control public performance of the work. By offering consumers an unlawful alternative for viewing streaming content, these rogue websites may reduce the number of people who would otherwise visit the legitimate providers of copyrighted material.

To enforce their intellectual property rights, copyright holders may file a lawsuit against the alleged infringer. In addition to these civil remedies, the U.S. Department of Justice has the power to criminally prosecute particularly egregious copyright infringers (repeat and large-scale offenders) in order to impose greater punishment and possibly deter other would-be infringers. Yet under the current law, many illegal streaming websites have evaded prosecution due largely to a disparity regarding the criminal penalties available for those who willfully infringe copyrights by means of reproduction and distribution (a felony offense in certain circumstances) and those who infringe copyrights by means of public performance (a misdemeanor).

In March 2011, the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator recommended Congress amend the law to harmonize penalties for the act of illegally streaming copyrighted content with those applicable to downloading and peer-to-peer file sharing of such protected material: “To ensure that Federal copyright law keeps pace with infringers, and to ensure that DOJ and U.S. law enforcement agencies are able to effectively combat infringement involving new technology, the Administration recommends that Congress clarify that infringement by streaming, or by means of other similar new technology, is a felony in appropriate circumstances.”

Following this recommendation, S. 978 was introduced in the 112th Congress. Commonly referred to as the Commercial Felony Streaming Act, S. 978 would authorize a maximum five-year prison sentence for those who, without authorization, willfully stream commercially valuable copyrighted material for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain. It also expands the current felony offense of unauthorized distribution of a pre-release commercial copyrighted work to include “public performance” of such work as an additional basis for prosecution. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on June 16, 2011, by voice vote, and Senator Leahy reported the bill on June 20 without amendment. 

Date of Report: August 29, 2011
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R41975
Price: $29.95

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