Piracy and controversial copyright laws tucked inside COVID relief bill

Illegally streaming pirated content for profit could land violators in prison for up to 10 years.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
Cheriss May/Getty Images

The new, $2.3 trillion spending bill just passed by Congress that includes $900 billion of coronavirus relief also contains a new law that'll punish piracy services that illegally stream large amounts of copyrighted content. This new law, along with two others dealing with copyright and trademark, are awaiting President Donald Trump's signature. 

The piracy law says violators could be prosecuted and face up to 10 years in prison for multiple offenses. They could also be fined. 

Before you get too worked about facing prison time for borrowing your friend's Netflix or HBOMax login, know that the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act doesn't target individuals. The law, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, is meant to focus on "commercial, for-profit streaming piracy services" that make money from illegally streaming copyrighted material.

The law states that "individuals who access pirated streams or unwittingly stream unauthorized copies of copyrighted works" won't face prosecution. 

Tillis said for-profit streaming pirates cost the US economy nearly $30 billion a year in lost revenue. 

"This commonsense legislation was drafted with the input of creators, user groups, and technology companies and is narrowly targeted so that only criminal organizations are punished and that no individual streamer has to worry about the fear of prosecution," Tillis wrote in a statement

In addition to the piracy law, Congress included in the massive legislation another copyright law, called the CASE Act, and a law involving trademark, the Trademark Modernization Act.

The CASE Act would create a panel of Copyright Claims Officers who'd rule on infringement claims. The bill says copyright holders could be awarded up to $30,000 in damages if it's found that their creative work has been illegally shared online.

Supporters of the CASE Act say the law will make it easier for smaller, independent artists to bring infringement cases without having to file expensive federal lawsuits. 

But critics of the legislation, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future, say the CASE Act could make it easier for big media companies to get damages from ordinary internet users, who'd face fines for doing things like sharing memes. 

"The CASE Act is a terribly written law that will threaten ordinary Internet users with huge fines for everyday online activity," Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement. "We're facing a massive eviction crisis and millions are unemployed due to the pandemic, but Congressional leaders could only muster $600 stimulus checks for COVID relief, but managed to cram in handouts for content companies like Disney?"

The Trademark Modernization Act targets "trademark trolls" by allowing third parties to request that the Patent Office reject trademark applications. So-called trademark trolls make money off trademarks they never plan to use. 

A group of 18 organizations, which included tech trade groups, such as the Internet Association; advocacy organizations, like the Electronic Foundation; and library groups, such as the American Library Association, urged congressional leaders to decline to include the provisions in the final bill, according to the news site Protocol.

"We respect Congress's intent to improve our intellectual property system and protect the rights of creators and entrepreneurs," the groups said in a letter sent to Congress. "However, certain aspects of this package of bills will have negative impacts on small- and medium-sized businesses, creators, libraries and their patrons, students, teachers, educational institutions, religious institutions, fan communities, internet users, and free expression."