President Obama's official 2012 campaign site, featuring a YouTube video

Despite historic use of social media during his presidential campaigns, President Obama has reintroduced a measure that will upgrade streaming copyrighted material to a felony. (Image © iStockPhoto)

The Huffington Post, Washington Post, and others have recently reported that the Obama administration is attempting to resurrect a piece of the now defunct Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), specifically a provision that classifies streaming copyrighted content as a felony. As the Washington Post explains:

As it stands now, streaming a copyrighted work over the Internet is considered a violation of the public performance right. The violation is only punishable as a misdemeanor, rather than the felony charges that accompany the reproduction and distribution of copyrighted material.

SOPA attempted to change that in Section 201, aptly titled “Streaming of copyrighted works in violation of criminal law.”

In reality, civil suits are filed instead, generally going after people that post the work to YouTube or a similar channel, but sometimes after the website itself. And although it’s small pickings, copyright holders can go after people that embed those videos as well, whether or not they originally uploaded it — that means you, small business owner. Techdirt points out:

Furthermore, because the lines between reproducing, distributing and public performance can get blurry at times, it’s very likely that any increased criminality for public performance will be stretched and abused to cover things that people think should be perfectly legal. […]the streaming provisions could clearly apply to something as simple as posting videos of yourself performing a cover of a popular song you don’t have a license to.

…which would normally be considered “fair use” by a normal person (of the non-corporation sort). However, because of the vague and overly broad definition of “public performance,” copyright holders have plenty of ground to argue over.

Why should I care?

Just to be clear, it is already illegal to stream copyrighted material. This provision, were it signed into law, would simply upgrade the offense from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Two boys watching a movie on a tablet (via iStockphoto)

Look at those cute little criminals. iStockPhoto)

The Huffington Post covers some specific examples of how silly the whole thing is (felony or not). Justin Bieber was discovered through YouTube, doing covers of copyrighted material; he would be a felon were this provision to pass into law. If your kids have ever pulled up a YouTube video of a scene from their favorite Disney movie (that wasn’t uploaded by Disney), then they are already hardened criminals (I’m sure you’re very proud). And while it may be safe to assume that Disney is not going to sue your children, you should not assume that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) won’t sue your business for using that Lady Gaga song in the video you made and uploaded.

If you have a YouTube channel, or even a Facebook or Google+ page, and you share other people’s content, be it video or graphical in nature, it is already your responsibility to make sure that you’re sharing it legally. Again, if you are generating your own content, make sure you’re not using copyrighted materials in it, like photos or videos.

If this provision were to become law, penalties increase, and you can imagine that civil penalties will too, and that’s an even greater incentive for organizations like the RIAA to come after you. Don’t risk it!

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