DOJ to Congress: Make online streaming a felony

The Department of Justice is pushing Congress to increase the penalties for streaming copyright-infringing content online, and some lawmakers are listening.

Repeating previous calls from the administration Thursday, David Bitkower, acting deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said online streaming of pirated content should receive the same consequences as illegal downloading.

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Online streaming “can be just as serious, and in fact, potentially even more serious” than downloading, “and the penalty should reflect that,” Bitkower said at hearing on copyright infringement held by the House Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property.

While infringing on copyrights through downloads is a felony, infringing through streaming is a misdemeanor, carrying a significantly shorter maximum prison sentence if convicted.

Many lawmakers on the panel, including Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), questioned the distinction.

“Downloading a copy of the movie 'Captain America' illegally is a felony, but if you were to simply stream the same movie illegally it would only be a misdemeanor,” Nadler said. “Does this distinction make sense?”

Stricter punishments are needed to clamp down on streaming policy, Bitkower argued.

While “misdemeanor penalties are real,” they “are simply not sufficient to deter those large-scale infringers,” he said, relaying the Justice Department’s recommendation that Congress update copyright law to make streaming infringement a felony.

Bitkower declined to comment on the Justice Department’s recommended severity of the punishment if Congress were to classify streaming as a felony, but he said the penalty should be commensurate with penalties for downloading infringing content.

“We would simply be increasing the maximum penalty,” and Congress could “keep it narrow,” he said.

The need for stricter punishments for streaming piracy increases as users shift away from downloading and toward streaming, Bitkower said.

“We have seen over the preceding years a trend toward streaming and away from simple downloads,” he said.