News & Politics

'COVID Relief' Bill Includes New Piracy Law Sending Illegal Streamers to Prison for 10 Years

AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

Streaming shows have been the saving grace of cooped-up families everywhere during COVID. Have you caught up yet on “The Crown” and seen every episode of the series “The Queen’s Gambit” yet? But tucked away inside the COVID relief bill is a rewrite of copyright and intellectual property law that could send illegal streamers to prison for ten years and give Hollywood producers a huge tax break.

Congress threw everything and the kitchen sink into the omnibus bill all in the name of COVID relief. And Hollywood and Silicon Valley got a huge gift with a bright red Christmas bow on it. The 5,593-page congressional wish list, now on its way to the president’s desk, includes a rewrite of piracy, copyright, and intellectual property laws. The changes, among things, make illegal streaming—piracy—a felony.

Now, we all know stealing is wrong and Congress is dysfunctional, but what does imprisoning streamers have to do with COVID relief? For that matter, what do horse racing, new cars for government apparatchiks, and gender medication for Pakistanis have to do with it, either? Wasn’t this a bailout for businesses and families?

Well, no, actually.

It looks like Republican Senator Thom Tillis reached into his upper right-hand desk drawer and pulled out a nearly 100-page rewrite of the copyright and IP laws he’d been holding onto and told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: This. Now. No one will notice.

The Hollywood Reporter says congress “smuggled” into the COVID bill a measure making illegal streaming a felony. The COVID bill also rewrites the way copyright litigation is treated. And that’s not all.

The spending bill also appears to adopt a long-discussed plan to create a small-claims adjudication system within the U.S. Copyright Office.

Advocates have long sought to give copyright owners some recourse to infringement outside of the expensive federal court system, though the so-called CASE Act has engendered some pushback from those weary of throwing certain disputes to unaccountable bureaucrats working for an agency suspected of favoring industry. Some critics believe the alternative dispute system to be unconstitutional, though by making the system opt-in and non-compulsory, advocates hope that it will survive any legal challenge and ultimately lead to swifter resolution over takedown notices for copyright material posted online. The CASE Act previously passed the House by a 410-6 vote before being blocked in the Senate by Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Tillis, and Amy Klobuchar before him, floated this bill for quite a while, but “it ended up dying as people worried about sending Justin Bieber to jail. (No, seriously.)

The rewritten copyright and intellectual property law covers “a computer program, a musical work, a motion picture or other audiovisual work, or a sound recording” but only for companies whose sole purpose is to ‘jack somebody else’s stuff.

It’s all in the name of helping people afflicted by the devastation of  COVID, you understand.

Penalties include but are not limited to fines, imprisonment for three years for the first offense to ten years for the second and subsequent offenses.

The publication NME reports that there could be some grace if thieves didn’t know it was pirated material.

This will not apply to individuals who access pirated streams or “unwittingly” stream unauthorised copies of copyrighted work. People who might use pirate streaming services will not be affected.

Tillis issued a statement saying that something needed to be done about the $30 billion lost to Hollywood, publishers, and Silicon Valley every year to piracy.

“The shift toward streaming content online has resulted in criminal streaming services illegally distributing copyrighted material that costs the U.S. economy nearly $30 billion every year, and discourages the production of creative content that Americans enjoy,” Tillis commented in a statement.

Tillis says the penalties will only apply to “commercial, for-profit streaming” pirates. Maybe his aim is directed toward China but there’s no mention of the biggest thief of U.S. intellectual property in Tillis’s statement. He said the law is aimed at a digital transmission service that:

  • is primarily designed or provided for the purpose of streaming copyrighted works without the authority of the copyright owner or the law; or
  • has no commercially significant purpose or use other than to stream copyrighted works without the authority of the copyright owner or the law; or
  • is intentionally marketed by or at the direction of that person to promote its use in streaming copyrighted works without the authority of the copyright owner or the law.

Deadline reports that producers get a big tax spiff in the bill too.

Separately, the legislation also includes and extension of a federal tax incentive for movie and TV productions, which has been known as Section 181. It allows producers to expense up to $15 million in production costs in the year they are incurred, rather than writing them off via depreciation. The extension is for five more years, through Dec. 31, 2025. That is significant in that Congress has typically renewed the provision on a year-by-year basis, sometimes doing so retroactively.

I’ll give Tillis one thing. At least the bill has bipartisan support.  But it’s got nothing to do with COVID relief.


Victoria Taft is the host of “The Adult in the Room Podcast With Victoria Taft” where you can hear her series on “Antifa Versus Mike Strickland.” Find it  here.  Follow her on Facebook,  TwitterParlerMeWeMinds @VictoriaTaft 

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