Obama "IP czar" wants felony charges for illegal Web streaming
By Nate Anderson
The Obama administration wants to make sure that the illegal streaming of music and movies over the Internet is a felony, and it also wants to give the federal government wiretap authority in copyright cases.
Victoria Espinel, the Obama administration's IP Enforcement Coordinator, today released her long-awaited wish list (PDF) of intellectual property law changes. Most focus on counterfeit drugs and economic espionage, but the list does contain three suggestions more likely to have some effect on home Internet users.
Streaming: The government wants to make sure that, as online piracy moves increasingly to streaming, the law keeps up with the activity. Currently, "reproducing" and "distributing" copyrighted works are felony charges, and they cover peer-to-peer file-sharing. But streaming seems more like a "public performance"—and holding a public performance without a proper license is not a felony.
As Espinel's paper notes, "questions have arisen" about this distinction, and those questions "have impaired the criminal enforcement of copyright laws." She wants Congress to "clarify that infringement by streaming, or by means of other similar new technology, is a felony in appropriate circumstances."
Wiretaps: The FBI and other federal agencies can tap phones and Internet connections for a whole host of serious crimes, but criminal copyright and trademark cases are not among them. Espinel wants to change this situation.
"Wiretap authority for these intellectual property crimes, subject to the existing legal protections that apply to wiretaps for other types of crimes, would assist US law enforcement agencies to effectively investigate those offenses, including targeting organized crime and the leaders and organizers of criminal enterprises," says the new whitepaper.
Radio: Radio stations currently pay cash to songwriters for the music they play, but the stations don't have to pay the actual bands who recorded the material. That's because the US lacks a public performance right for recorded music played by radio stations, unlike most other nations (a situation which means that most other countries won't pay US artists, either, until we pay their artists).
Espinel suggests the creation of public performance rights for music on the radio, which the US already has for satellite broadcasting and webcasting. But the broadcasting lobby has opposed the move ferociously, claiming that its unique exemption from payment is because radio has such promotional force for artists.
The list largely avoids big controversies—Web censorship, "three strikes" rules—in favor of a focus on health, safety, and serious criminal activity. Even Public Knowledge, a group not known for its embrace of increased IP enforcement, called the document a positive step.
"The recommendations largely address important areas of intellectual property enforcement that are often overlooked in more contentious debates at the edges of these issues," said president Gigi Sohn. "While there may be room for disagreement on specific methods of implementation, Victoria Espinel has compiled a thoughtful list of targeted recommendations for enforcement."