Take a minute and think of your favorite song. Now go to YouTube, next time you have a chance, and search for it. I’ll bet that dozens of cover versions show up in the search results. In fact, only one of those results is probably legit—the original music video, performed by the original artist, and uploaded by his or her record company.
Now imagine taking all of the people responsible for all of the other videos—including the little kid singing your favorite song in his living room as his parents coo—and throwing them in jail for five years. That’s right. Just toss them into our overcrowded prisons and forget about them.
New legislation is making its way through Congress right now that could impose a 5-year prison sentence on anyone convicted up uploading YouTube videos containing music to which they do not own the rights. The bill, S.978, is expected to pass; most legislation backed by the RIAA and MPAA receives bipartisan support and is quietly signed into law.
Yes, S.978 has a few caveats, but they’re hardly worth mentioning. It defines “streaming” as 10 or more times in a 180 day period, which means that virtually any video would qualify. And the value of the illegally-streamed video would have to exceed $2,500, or the licensing fees would have to be greater than $5,000. But we’re dealing with lawyers from the RIAA. Remember Jammie Thomas? She was the suburban mom in Minnesota that got caught up in the illegal file-sharing case after downloading 24 songs on Kazaa. In her trials, she was fined between $2,250 and $80,000 per song.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. A group opposing the legislation has dragged teen sensation Justin Bieber into the debate, launching a website: FreeBieber.org. They rightly acknowledge that the world’s most famous pop icon could be looking at hard time if this bill becomes law. You may remember that Justin got his start as a YouTube sensation—performing covers of R&B songs by Chris Brown and Ne-Yo before being discovered by Usher. The case against Bieber, under the new legislation, would be open-and-shut. And the teenybopper would spend the rest of his days behind bars.
Of course, that would never happen, thanks to selective prosecution—and because all of Bieber’s past transgressions are prologue. But the next Justin Bieber would be stopped dead in his tracks, locked up for sharing his performances online. (Or orphaned, perhaps, if his parents were responsible for uploading them.)
Our copyright laws are arcane and ridiculous. The punishment nearly always outweighs the crime. I understand that the MPAA and RIAA have struggled to adapt to the rapidly-changing technology, but this isn’t new. In 1982, MPPA President Jack Valenti lobbied to ban the VCR, arguing that it would kill Hollywood. As we all know, it instead became one of the industry’s chief sources of revenue.
I’m not arguing that the Jammie Thomases of the world are without culpability. What she did was wrong, and copyright infringement is theft. But it’s more akin to petty shoplifting than it is grand larceny. Think about it—if those same 24 songs she downloaded were on a CD at Target, and she lifted it, she could probably pay the fine with the money in her purse. Instead, she was (in one trial) ordered to pay $1.9 million in statutory damages. That is not justice.
If S.978 passes, singing “Happy Birthday” in a YouTube video could conceivably become illegal. A video of your kid’s school play could get you 5 years—even a video of you driving down the road with the radio on. It’s absurd, and the ramifications, the unintended consequences, could be more outrageous than anything we’ve seen to date.
Find out more at www.FreeBieber.org.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 11/03/2011.
© Damien Willis, 2011. All rights reserved.