Tillis Pushes Prison Time for Online Streamers

Felony streaming legislation from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) will be attached to an upcoming "must-pass" omnibus government funding bill.

Tillis Pushes Prison Time for Online Streamers
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) arrives at a “Meet & Greet in Pitt County” event at Skylight Inn BBQ October 30, 2020 in Ayden, North Carolina.

Congress has once again put itself in a situation of having to pass a last-minute omnibus bill to fund the government and prevent a shutdown. These truly are must-pass bills since much of the government grinds to a halt without them, so they often get used as vehicles for controversial bills that can’t pass on their own. Senators and representatives work out backroom deals to attach their pet measures to funding for things like food inspections and airport safety and then dare their colleagues to object.  

This time around, one of the measures being crammed into the omnibus is a proposal from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) to turn unauthorized commercial streaming of copyrighted material like an album on YouTube, a video clip on Twitch, or a song in an Instagram story into a felony offense with a possible prison sentence rather than a misdemeanor, according to Protocol. The text of the measure has not been publicly released yet, but it is expected to be broadly similar to past entertainment industry-backed attempts to criminalize unauthorized streaming, such as the provisions of the SOPA/PIPA bills in 2012 that sparked an unprecedented internet “blackout” protest or the Commercial Felony Streaming Act, which prompted Justin Bieber to say that its sponsor, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), should be “locked up.”

“A felony streaming bill would likely be a chill on expression,” said Katharine Trendacosta, associate director of policy and activism with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “We already see that it’s hard enough in just civil copyright and the DMCA for people to feel comfortable asserting their rights. The chance of a felony would impact both expression and innovation.”

Tillis, the chairman of the Intellectual Properties Subcommittee, was recently re-elected for another six-year term by a margin of less than 2% over his Democratic opponent. In the final stretch of his campaign, Tillis received a surge of campaign contributions from PACs affiliated with entertainment companies and trade groups that lobby Congress for aggressive copyright enforcement against internet users, including prison time for unauthorized streaming.

In the third and fourth quarters of 2020, Tillis’ campaign and leadership PAC received donations from PACs affiliated with the Motion Picture Association, Sony Pictures, ASCAP, Universal Music Group, Comcast & NBC Universal, The Internet and Television Association, Salem Media Group, Warner Music, and others in the entertainment and cable industry that seek to suppress the unauthorized sharing of content. Many other entertainment industry PACs gave Tillis contributions earlier in the 2019-20 cycle, totaling well over $100,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. Executives of Fox Corporation, Sony Entertainment, Charter Communications, and CBS also made large donations to Tillis in the third quarter of this year.

“The Hollywood and entertainment groups…have an absolutely massive undue influence on copyright law in Congress,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation policy analyst Joe Mullin. “It’s really impossible to understate it.”

Many of these companies have executives on the board of an astroturf nonprofit called Creative Future that advocates for felony streaming legislation and other strict copyright measures opposed by internet freedom groups. Creative Future lists hundreds of small studios as coalition members on its website, but one would have to consult its 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service to see who is really directing the group. Creative Future’s board of directors includes John Rogovin, executive vice president and general counsel of Warner Bros. Entertainment; Leah Weil, senior executive vice president and general counsel of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and Kimberley Harris, executive vice president of Comcast Corporation and general counsel of NBCUniversal, among several other Hollywood executives.

Creative Future, which called Tillis “our hero on the Hill” in a March 2020 interview, is a rebranding of a group called Creative America that was formed in 2011 to advocate for SOPA and PIPA. Creative America’s website now redirects to Creative Future’s website. Creative Future is listed as a “related organization” and a recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial transfers on the Motion Picture Association’s annual 990s. 

In 2018, Tillis was one of three senators who benefited from a fundraiser hosted by Motion Picture Association CEO Charles Rivkin and major Hollywood studios.  

“I was a professional musician for a decade and I don’t know of a single working artist who thinks of Tom Tillis as a champion,” said Evan Greer, deputy director at internet freedom group Fight for the Future. “He consistently pushes for draconian copyright policies that benefit big corporations, not independent creators, and threaten free expression and human rights in the process.” 

“Pushing for more Internet censorship and threatening streamers with prison time doesn’t benefit artists, but it’s exactly what Tillis’ corporate donors seem to want,” Greer added.

The felony streaming measure is part of a package of three bills related to intellectual property rights that are being added to the omnibus, according to Protocol. 

One, the CASE Act, would create a new court within the U.S. Copyright Office for expediting copyright claims that critics say could help copyright trolls and giant companies go after ordinary internet users. People found to have shared a copyrighted piece of content could be penalized with a fine of up to $30,000, according to the bill text. Creative Future supports this bill. The third, known as the Trademark Modernization Act, is supposed to crack down on fraudulent trademark filings from foreign countries. Each of these bills have small cohorts of backers in Congress, but Tillis is an original co-sponsor of the CASE Act and the primary sponsor of the trademark bill. 

Tillis’ office did not respond to Sludge’s request for comment. 

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