I wanted to provide a heads up about a big legal shift happening around streaming movies, TV shows, sports, and other media online. U.S. lawmakers are currently pushing to criminalize unauthorized streaming, making it a felony offense.
I know this might sound alarming if you enjoy streaming content through various free sites and apps. And you‘re not alone – this impacts millions of average Americans.
In this article, I‘ll break down exactly what‘s happening and why, what the concerns are around criminalization, and whether the entertainment industry may need to change its approach. My aim is to help explain this complex issue so you can understand how it might affect you.
How Bad is Streaming Piracy for the Entertainment Industry?
First, it‘s helpful to understand why organizations like the NBA, RIAA, and MPAA are so set on criminalizing streaming. There‘s no doubt that streaming piracy is severely hurting their business model. But just how big is the financial damage?
Let‘s look at some statistics:
The film/TV industry loses $29.2 billion annually from streaming piracy. That‘s massive!
Music stream ripping sites generate over 300 million visits per month. Those are potential lost streaming revenues.
The NFL reported 15.2 million illegal streams of Super Bowl LIII in 2019. That‘s a huge portion of their viewership.
The UFC claimed 5 billion streaming piracy minutes in 2016. Many of those were paid UFC events.
So it‘s clear that media companies are losing many billions in revenues each year to unauthorized streaming.
While I don‘t think consumers should face jail time for watching movies and sports online, this context helps explain why the industry is lobbying hard for felony convictions.
They see current laws as weak deterrence. They want harsher penalties to scare off potential streamers and sites.
A Brief History of Streaming Legislation
Corporate calls to crack down on media piracy are nothing new. How did we get to the point where criminalization is gaining real momentum?
A quick history lesson shows attempts to stop streaming piracy date back over a decade:
2007: H.R. 2201 bill proposes making unauthorized streaming a felony. Fails to pass.
2011: Commercial Felony Streaming Act proposes 5 year jail time for for-profit streaming. Public outcry.
2019: NBA & UFC push Senate Judiciary Committee to revisit felony streaming.
2019: Senate subcommittee asks Copyright Office for law change recommendations.
2019: Copyright Office endorses consistent criminal penalties for streaming piracy.
So while past legislative efforts faltered, ongoing industry pressure has continued bringing the issue back to Congress.
And this time appears different with the Copyright Office now supporting criminalization. The political landscape has shifted.
Can We Even Tell Legal vs. Illegal Streaming Apart?
Here‘s the elephant in the room when it comes to anti-streaming laws:
How do we distinguish legal digital media sites and apps from shady pirate operations?
Unlike the illegal sites of the past, lots of streaming services appear 100% professional and legitimate these days.
For example, take the defunct site and app SET TV. At a quick glance, it looked like any other online cable alternative:
But SET TV was actually an unlicensed operation the FBI eventually shut down.
As a regular consumer, could you tell the difference between SET TV and a legal option like Sling TV or YouTube TV? I certainly couldn‘t.
And SET TV is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of sites in murky legal territory:
- Foreign sites with unclear licensing like Fmovies
- Sports streaming groups using legal loopholes
- Piracy apps like Mobdro masking illegal sources
- Kodi add-ons enabling illegal content access
- Stream ripping sites claiming fair use exceptions
Very few people can discern which stream sources are legit and which aren‘t. And laws with unclear delineations could end up punishing well-intentioned streamers.
We need precise definitions to avoid criminalizing everyday online activities.
Do Media Giants Need to Change Their Business Models?
Rather than pushing for harsher laws, entertainment companies may find adapting their business models reduces piracy incentives.
Today‘s media landscape is drastically different than the cable TV and Blockbuster video days. As consumers, we expect:
Lower prices – $8 Netflix vs $80 cable bundles
More control – Choosing only the content we want
Instant access – Media available on any device immediately
No advertising – Ad-free streaming tiers
When media companies stray too far from these expectations, it drives people towards unauthorized streaming sources.
Some ways the entertainment industry could modernize to win back consumers include:
Offer affordable a la carte channel pricing
Provide ad-free premium tiers
Shorten theatrical windows to quickly send movies into homes
Release content across multiple streaming platforms simultaneously
Utilize free ad-supported streaming with cheaper subscriptions
Rather than relying on anti-piracy laws, adapting their business models to fit today‘s digital landscape could help curb unauthorized streaming.
What Happens Next with Anti-Streaming Legislation?
While the momentum behind criminalizing streaming is growing, the road to actual felony legislation still faces obstacles:
The Copyright Office must draft specific statutory language for Congress to codify. This language needs to be extremely precise.
Tech companies will likely lobby hard against overbroad laws that could ensnare legal sites like YouTube.
Public interest groups will express concerns about restricting internet freedom and access.
Drafting bills that don‘t punish everyday streamers doing grey-area activities will prove challenging.
However, given the ongoing pressure from deep-pocketed entertainment groups, I do think we‘ll continue seeing a strong push in this direction.
The Department of Justice seems receptive as well. Some form of anti-streaming legislation seems likely in the next 1-2 years.
This could significantly disrupt the streaming landscape. Sites could preemptively shut down ambiguous sources to avoid legal risks. Prices of legal services may rise if piracy declines. Access to some currently free content could require new paid subscriptions.
It‘s an issue worth paying close attention to as both a media consumer and citizen. Please reach out via comments if you have any thoughts or concerns! I‘m happy to continue the discussion.