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Felony streaming bill would ‘stifle innovation, jail ordinary citizens’, says progressive group

As Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s bill to amend U.S. copyright law to make it a felony to stream copyrighted material online heads for a vote on the Senate floor, more attention is being paid. The nonprofit government transparency group MapLight notes that backers of the measure — which includes the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, NBC and CBS, among others — have given more than $85 million to sitting senators in the last six years. And the progressive group Demand Progress is challenging Klobuchar’s assertion that the bill will only target “criminals” hoping to make big money from copyright infringement.

Klobuchar’s bill assigns a maximum 5-year prison term for those convicted of streaming “10 or more public performances by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copyrighted works” and in cases where the “total retail value” of those performances to its owner exceeds $2,500 or the value of licensing of the works exceeds $5,000. It passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but a vote before the full Senate has not yet been scheduled.

According to MapLight, the top 10 industries contributing to Klobuchar’s campaign included TV, music and entertainment companies: She received nearly $170,000 from the industry since 2005. Bill consponsor Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) took in more than $82,000 from the same industries, while Republican cosponsor Sen. John Cornyn’s MapLight data doesn’t show the industry within his top-10-donors list.

It’s not the industry, but average citizens that Demand Progress is worried about. That group was founded by Aaron Swartz, who co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, watchdog.net, Open Library and the popular social news site Reddit.com. His group’s campaign around the bill says its passage could mean that average citizens end up going “to jail for posting video of your friends singing karaoke.” A Klobuchar spokesperson said that’s not true, directing the Minnesota Independent to Klobuchar’s statement last week that the bill “isn’t about individuals or families streaming movies at home,” but instead targets “criminals streaming thousands of dollars worth of stolen digital content and profiting from it.”

That may be the intent of the senator, but it’s not in the bill, Swartz writes in an email: “[A]sk Klobuchar’s office for the specific text that limits it just to people trying to make money.” (Klobuchar’s office says it’s currently working on a response to the Minnesota Independent’s questions about the bill.)

Swartz points out that Klobuchar’s bill amends existing U.S. code, which already assigns punishment for those who’ve committed copyright infringement through “the distribution of a work being prepared for commercial distribution, by making it available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial distribution.” (Klobuchar’s proposed change would add “or public performance” after the first usage of “distribution” above.)

“Presumably the government would argue that any lip-sync singer should know that pop songs are intended for commercial distribution and clearly uploading them to YouTube is making them available on a computer network accessible to members of the public,” writes Swartz. “Klobuchar may claim her bill is only aimed at the worst of the worst, but reading the actual text shows otherwise.”

He added, “In an era where Hollywood has been working closely with federal prosecutors to put people in jail for merely linking to copyrighted video streams, there’s no doubt that a change like this is going to be abused to stifle innovation and jail ordinary citizens.”

“Would YouTube have ever gotten off the ground if its CEOs and users thought they might face prison time for it?”

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