Stream a YouTube video, go directly to jail

Want to embed a copyrighted video on your website? A new Senate bill would make that a felony

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.

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