By now, you’ve probably heard of the “Free Bieber” Campaign. Since it was announced, it has been widely reported on many blogs and news sites, including Hillicon Valley.
According to the campaign:
A new bill in Congress makes posting a video containing any copyrighted work a felony– with up to 5 years in prison.
But wait… didn’t Justin Bieber get famous by posting YouTube videos of himself singing copyrighted R&B songs? Yep.
If this bill passes, he could get 5 years in jail.
The rest of the website (store coming soon!) is filled with the usual diatribes against the mean record labels and movie studios.
But what makes this campaign truly absurd is that it is completely wrong about what this new bill will do. Not wrong in a “we’ll agree to disagree” sense, but wrong about the plain meaning of the text of the legislation.
The bill referred to hear is S.978, the Commercial Felony Streaming Act, introduced in the Senate last May. I wrote about the bill, what it does, and why it’s needed several times in the past (see Fears of Felony Streaming Bill Overblown and Commercial Felony Streaming Act FUD).
The individuals behind the “Free Bieber” campaign are either completely ignorant about how copyright law works or being deliberately disingenuous to stir up opposition against a minor, albeit judicious, piece of legislation. Anyone who uploads video to YouTube faces no increased risk of criminal penalties if this bill passes.
Justin Bieber is not going to jail.
Uploading Video is Not a Public Performance
Copyright is made up of several, discrete rights: the right to reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works, and publicly perform (or display) a work. The Commercial Felony Streaming Act only concerns the public performance right. It aligns the maximum criminal penalties for infringement of public performances to the equivalent, already existing penalties for infringement of reproduction and distribution of copyrighted works.
It should first be pointed out that a “performance” requires two parts: an active and a passive component, the performer and the audience. “Broadcasters perform. Viewers do not perform.” Only a performer is liable for an unauthorized public performance; viewers and listeners are not infringers in this situation. So someone who merely watches or listens to unauthorized streaming media is not infringing on the copyright owner’s public performance right.
The key to understanding public performance is pinning down what activity constitutes a performance and who is acting as the performer. (And don’t confuse the legal definition of a “performance” within copyright law with the every day meaning of the word.)
You may recall that earlier this month the Supreme Court denied cert in US v. ASCAP. That lawsuit provides a good starting point for learning how to answer these questions. ASCAP had argued that a download of a music file is not only a reproduction but also a public performance of the work. Both the District and Circuit Courts rejected this argument.
Said the 2nd Circuit:
The ordinary sense of the words “recite,” “render,” and “play” refer to actions that can be perceived contemporaneously. To “recite” is “to repeat from memory or read aloud esp[ecially] before an audience”, to “render” is to “say over: recite, repeat,” and to “play” is to “perform on a musical instrument,” “sound in performance,” “reproduce sound of recorded material” or to “act on a stage or in some other dramatic medium.” All three actions entail contemporaneous perceptibility.
These definitions comport with our common-sense understandings of these words. Itzakh Perlman gives a “recital” of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major when he performs it aloud before an audience. Jimmy Hendrix memorably (or not, depending on one’s sensibility) offered a “rendition” of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock when he performed it aloud in 1969. Yo-Yo Ma “plays” the Cello Suite No. 1 when he draws the bow across his cello strings to audibly reproduce the notes that Bach inscribed. Music is neither recited, rendered, nor played when a recording (electronic or otherwise) is simply delivered to a potential listener.
The final clause of the § 101 definition of “to perform” further confirms our interpretation. It states that a performance “in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, [is] to show [the work's] images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible.” The fact that the statute defines performance in the audio-visual context as “show[ing]” the work or making it “audible” reinforces the conclusion that “to perform” a musical work entails contemporaneous perceptibility. ASCAP has provided no reason, and we can surmise none, why the statute would require a contemporaneously perceptible event in the context of an audio-visual work, but not in the context of a musical work.
The downloads at issue in this appeal are not musical performances that are contemporaneously perceived by the listener. They are simply transfers of electronic files containing digital copies from an on-line server to a local hard drive. The downloaded songs are not performed in any perceptible manner during the transfers; the user must take some further action to play the songs after they are downloaded. Because the electronic download itself involves no recitation, rendering, or playing of the musical work encoded in the digital transmission, we hold that such a download is not a performance of that work, as defined by § 101. [Emphasis added].
Though it was specifically addressing downloading a file, the reasoning applies just as well to uploading a file. And, in fact, the District Court spoke more directly, saying “Although we acknowledge that the term ‘perform’ should be broadly construed, we can conceive of no construction that extends it to the copying of a digital file from one computer to another in the absence of any perceptible rendition.” Other courts seem to agree: “Napster users who upload file names to the search index for others to copy violate plaintiffs’ distribution rights. Napster users who download files containing copyrighted music violate plaintiffs’ reproduction rights.” “Downloading and uploading copyrighted files from a peer-to-peer network constitutes, respectively, reproducing and distributing copyrighted material in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 106.”
Uploading a video to YouTube, then, may infringe on someone else’s reproduction or distribution rights, but it doesn’t infringe on someone else’s public performance rights.
We can compare users who upload to YouTube to record labels who provide songs to radio stations. Most commonly, record labels and recording artists control only the rights to the sound recording, while music publishers and songwriters control the rights to the underlying song. A recording artist needs permission from a songwriter to reproduce a song onto a sound recording — generally called a “mechanical license.” A radio station needs permission to perform the song on air — permission that is granted through blanket licensing by Performance Rights Organizations (in the US: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC). The record label, however, doesn’t need a public performance license in this scenario because giving the sound recording to a radio station is not a performance.
In the same way, someone who uploads a video to YouTube is not performing the video — YouTube is.
Someone uploading a video to YouTube still needs permission for any reproduction or distribution of someone else’s copyrighted work that occurred during the creation and uploading of the video — but that’s always been true. The Commercial Felony Streaming Act adjusts the penalty only for unauthorized public performances.
In short, the proposed legislation changes no law that would effect someone uploading a video to YouTube.
It’s Still Copyright Infringement Without S.978
As an aside, I want to address the idea that creating and uploading videos to YouTube that use copyrighted material without permission is (and has always been) copyright infringement. Judging by some of the comments on sites reporting on the “Free Bieber” campaign, this idea is news to many people.
But despite the fact that creating and uploading a video using copyrighted material without permission is, in many cases, infringement, and despite much ink spilled worrying that such “user-generated content” could subject the user to copyright law’s various penalties, these worries have failed to materialize.
I’m not talking about a video being removed pursuant to a DMCA takedown notice — service providers take users’ videos down when they are notified by a content owner to protect themselves. A user may not like seeing his video come down, but a DMCA takedown is not legal action against the user and has no bearing on any liability for infringement the user may be exposed to.
I’m also not talking about lawsuits filed against individual P2P users for uploading and downloading music and movies through P2P networks. Filesharing is a markedly different activity than uploading content to a UGC sharing site like YouTube.
I’m talking specifically about legal action taken against users of YouTube and other sites who upload videos that may infringe on someone else’s copyright.
The EFF, certainly not biased in favor of copyright enforcement, is clear that this has not been a problem:
As far as we know, no typical YouTube user has ever been sued by a major entertainment industry company for uploading a video. We have heard of a couple special cases, involving pre-release content leaked by industry insiders, but those aren’t typical YouTube users. And there have probably been a few lawsuits brought by aggressive individual copyright trolls. But no lawsuits against YouTubers by Hollywood studios or major record labels. That’s right — millions of videos have been posted to YouTube, hundreds of thousands taken down by major media companies, but those companies have not brought lawsuits against YouTube users.
Given that over 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, the percentage of people who face liability for copyright infringement on the site is effectively zero.
In his response to the “Free Bieber” campaign, Thomas Sydnor allays these worries even further. He notes that “Neither existing law nor S. 978 criminalizes the act of being a kid or consumer who does not understand the nuances of performance-right licensing”, “Even if posted years ago, Bieber’s videos were probably licensed,” and “Federal prosecutors have never, nor will they ever, prosecute ordinary consumers for technical infringements unworthy of even a takedown notice.”
We can disagree over legitimate concerns over any proposed legislation — its effectiveness, whether potential harms outweigh potential benefits. But these are not legitimate concerns. The worries expressed are not, in any sense, implicated by S.978.