What’s the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act Really About?

As with the CASE Act, anti-copyright (and even some copyright-neutral) voices reacted on social media to the fact that a bill called the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act (PLSA) was attached to the massive omnibus spending package that passed Congress last night.  What this bill will do is make enterprise-scale criminal copyright infringement, by means of digital streaming, a felony rather than a misdemeanor. So, once again, the gnashing of teeth began, alleging that Congress kowtowed to Hollywood, that this provision was snuck in as a rider at the 11th hour, and that making streaming a felony threatens all manner of innocent internet users. As usual, none of the above is true.

I wrote about felony streaming in the body of a post about the indictments against a group of men operating an illegal streaming service called Jetflicks in the U.S., and I shall republish here with minor alterations:

The distinction between civil copyright infringement and criminal copyright infringement is based on the purpose and conduct of the alleged infringer. Old-school criminal copyright infringement usually entailed mass-producing bootleg, physical copies of works like movies or record albums to sell in an unlicensed market as a substitute for the legal market. Consequently, U.S. criminal code historically identified unlicensed reproduction and distribution as felony charges that law enforcement may bring in criminal copyright cases.  But streaming audio or video (though it often implicates reproduction and distribution) has been considered a public performance of a work, and unlicensed public performances are, historically, misdemeanors. 

But clearly, the kind of harm that will be caused by enterprise-scale infringement via online streaming is greater than any amount of counterfeiting that was done in the pre-digital age. If selling ten thousand bootlegs out of a warehouse in 1988 was a felony, then how can it make sense that illegally streaming tens of thousands of works to tens of millions of viewers is considered a lesser crime?  A letter written in July of 2019 by the Register of Copyrights to the Senate Judiciary Committee, IP Subcommittee states, “Under this system, criminal streaming piracy, no matter the dollar amount it involves or the number of works affected, is de facto treated as a lesser crime than the illegal downloading or reproduction of the exact same content.”

So, the distinction that made mass infringement via streaming a misdemeanor was a technicality, a loophole, that no longer applied to the real world of digital-age piracy for profit. The PLSA, which was not conjured in the wee hours of last night’s omnibus spending bill haggling, simply closes the loophole. It has no bearing on any individual users, legal streaming services, or even individual streaming of an infringing use; and it changes nothing about the nature of civil copyright enforcement. So, unless you are building the next Pirate Bay or Megaupload or Jetflicks—and doing so within the reach of American jurisdiction—you would never need to know about this change to the criminal code.

As usual, the internet industry, with the support of its network of anti-copyright pundits, simply oppose enforcement at every opportunity, and this was one of those opportunities. That said, it is true that, unlike the CASE Act, Hollywood does have an interest in felony streaming. And why wouldn’t they? If we’re using “Hollywood” as a generic term for motion picture producers, whose products do we think are illegally streamed in mass quantity by pirate enterprises? But like the CASE Act, the proposal to close the streaming loophole has been in public discussion for many years for the reasons I have stated, and it is political theater to allege that Congress suddenly “caved” to Hollywood on this matter.

In reality, the PLSA is the result of months of negotiations between content industry representatives and parties representing online platforms and user communities. Because the bill was narrowly tailored—at the insistence of those purporting to represent users—groups that usually express concern with any copyright legislation agreed to the final language of the bill and even went on record at a House Judiciary Hearing saying that they were not opposed to the bill.

So, nobody caved to Hollywood, as Techdirt will tell you, because the legislative amendment just makes common sense to anyone looking at the issue; and the only people this change will affect negatively are criminal operators, who cause economic harm to a whole segment of middle-class workers. Meanwhile, the handful of critics, shouting from their rather well-feathered aeries in academia and industry-funded think tanks, should maybe shut up about this one and find something real to complain about. We’ve got plenty.

Image by: Elnur

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