COVID Stimulus Bill Increases Criminal Penalties For Streaming Piracy

The COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress this week, but not yet signed by President Trump, includes a provision that increases penalties for commercial online piracy.

The “Protecting Lawful Streaming Act,” which was passed as part of the 5,000-page COVID relief bill and government spending package, makes it a felony to operate a commercial service that's primarily designed to stream pirated movies, tv shows, live sports and other material that infringes copyright. That type of for-profit streaming of pirated content is currently a misdemeanor. 

“The Protecting Lawful Streaming Act will apply only to commercial, for-profit streaming piracy services,” a website operated by bill sponsor Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) states. “The law will not sweep in normal practices by online service providers, good faith business disputes, noncommercial activities, or in any way impact individuals who access pirated streams or unwittingly stream unauthorized copies of copyrighted works. Individuals who might use pirate streaming services will not be affected.”

The measure provides for penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

Separately, the COVID relief bill incorporates the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act, which empowers the Copyright Office to adjudicate copyright infringement claims, and caps damages at $30,000.

Currently, when copyright infringement lawsuits are brought in federal court, damages can range from $750 to $150,000 per work infringed.

Individuals who are sued in the new small-claims court can opt out.

Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, which criticizes the CASE Act, suggests that a small-claims system run by the Copyright Office won't have enough procedural safeguards -- including ones aimed at making sure alleged infringers are notified about claims.

“Public Knowledge is deeply troubled by the passage of the CASE Act, which creates an unaccountable 'court' within the legislative branch and empowers it to issue unreviewable, unappealable default judgments of up to $30,000 against individual users of platforms and other private parties in copyright infringement claims -- potentially without the knowledge or consent of the 'defendants' on whom those judgments are levied,” the group states.

“The bill creates an opportunity for copyright trolls, who can file claims against small-time artists and individual internet users, and sets up a process that can deny defendants their usual rights,” John Bergmayer, legal director at Public Knowledge, stated. 

But some organizations representing content owners cheered the COVID bill's copyright-related provisions.

The Recording Industry Association of America, SAG-AFTRA and other groups said in a statement that both the CASE Act and the Protect Lawful Streaming Act “will strengthen creators’ ability to protect their works against infringement online, and promote a safer, fairer digital environment.”

The fate of the COVID relief bill -- which also provides for $600 stimulus checks to individuals -- is not yet clear. On Tuesday night, Trump called the bill “a disgrace” and said he was asking Congress to revise the measure by increasing the “ridiculously low” stimulus payments, and removing “wasteful and unnecessary items."

Next story loading loading..