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Editors note: Gale Anne Hurd, a producer of films and television shows including the Terminator trilogy, Aliens, Armageddon and The Walking Dead, writes about the recent passage of a new copyright provision that targets streaming piracy, making it a felony to operate a large-scale, for-profit service.
I am not a lawyer or politician; I am a filmmaker. With a lot of hard work, as well as good luck, I have had a successful 40-year career in the entertainment industry. Consequently, I feel a responsibility to speak out for those who are working to establish themselves in the creative community. And it is why I celebrate and give thanks when Congress stands up for our community – as they did with the recent passage of the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act (PLSA).
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The law, which makes large-scale streaming piracy operations subject to felony prosecution, was attached to the omnibus spending bill designed to give relief to individuals and businesses who are struggling during the pandemic. Those suffering include the 2.6 million hardworking people employed by the film and television industry. Their pain, a result of production shutdowns and layoffs, has been compounded by the meteoric rise of illegal streaming.
Piracy has been around forever, and I have been dealing with it, in one form or another, for my entire career – starting when bootleg VHS copies of my original Terminator film were being sold on street corners. But the amount of harm we suffered from bootlegs was peanuts compared to today’s internet- driven piracy. Multinational criminal enterprises now push monthly subscriptions to streaming services with names like Lazer IPTV and Pegasus, selling stolen content libraries that are as easy to use as Netflix – but vastly larger – and they include live channels from all over the world.
Even before the pandemic, streaming piracy was costing the U.S. economy each year at least $29.2 billion, 230,000 to 560,000 jobs, and $47.5 billion in reduced GDP every year. Now, as the global population has been sheltering in place for more than 10 months, streaming piracy has unfortunately become more popular than ever. Between February and March, according to UK-based analytics firm MUSO, there were nearly one billion visits to piracy sites in the U.S. alone, representing a 60% increase from the beginning of the year.
You would think that the law might deter this massive, global copyright theft. But it does not, because the law did not contemplate streaming technology.
The last significant update of the penalties for distributing unlicensed creative work was decades ago, when no one could have conceived of streaming piracy. Which is why, until recently, a criminal profiting from illegal DVDs or peer-to-peer downloads in the U.S. could be charged with felonies punishable by fines and jail time, but a pirate offering a vastly more harmful streaming service (streaming now comprises 80% of all piracy) could only be charged with a misdemeanor.
But now, with the passage of the PLSA, U.S. law enforcement can finally start to shut down these for- profit criminal enterprises. With its passage, we can anticipate that legal digital sales and rentals will increase by as much as 10%, which will inject billions of dollars in stolen revenues back into the struggling legal economy, helping to bring back jobs for creatives who have been hit hard by the pandemic.
Most importantly, this law was carefully negotiated – and user groups were at the table. The PLSA targets only commercial criminal operations that are dedicated exclusively to streaming unlicensed works. The anti-copyright, pro-Big Tech contingent has tried desperately to paint the law as a threat to innocent internet users. This argument is patently false – audiences at home who use these services will not be prosecuted.
Video piracy hurts creatives and the U.S. economy, but it also hurts consumers in ways they do not suspect, since one out of every three pirate sites infects users with malware or other harmful code. By cracking down on such sites, the PLSA will make it harder for innocent users to stumble across pirate websites that spread malware, giving bad guys access to our banking information, identity, or credit cards.
But perhaps the most lasting effect of the new law will be to deter would-be criminals in the first place. In 2012, the notorious pirate site Megaupload, with a reported 180 million registered users and an average of 50 million daily visits, was shut down by the FBI, and its founders were indicted. After that, a number other criminal enterprises stealing our films and TV series either changed their business models or shut down altogether. Piracy did not stop, but it slowed down. Now, the ability to use the PLSA to shut down similar sites will help dissuade future streaming pirates from setting up similar operations.
Creative advocates have been trying to close the streaming loophole in copyright law for years and have been stymied by opposition from copyright skeptics and Big Tech interests. Then again, if I have learned anything from producing science-fiction movies, it is that sometimes it takes humans a while to understand the harms technology can bring before we are smart enough to get them under control.
By adding the PLSA to a pandemic relief bill meant to help Americans now, members of Congress have offered a lifeline to creatives for decades to come. From the bottom of my heart, I thank them.
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