Free Justin Bieber – and the rest of us, too!

This image from is one of many being used to campaign against a new law that would criminalize some kinds of copyright infringement.

Seen the online photos of Justin Bieber in prison yet? If not, chances are you will before long, because the viral campaign from a new activist group is turning up everywhere online.

The idea behind the campaign is that a bill from my very own Senator John Cornyn and others in the U.S. Senate would make the kind of YouTube videos that helped Justin Bieber attract the interest of his record company – a teenager filming himself singing other people’s music – could wind up being punishable by five years in prison. Like much of the hype in the copyright wars, it’s both true – and false – that the proposed legislation could put teenagers in prison for singing.

What S.978 does – and doesn’t – do

Sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Chris Coons (D-DE), the bill is backed by the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Opposition comes from citizen rights advocacy groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Entertainment Consumers Association, among others.

And, yes, infringing on someone else’s copyright by recording yourself singing their music and posting that on YouTube could result in such a sentence. You can read the full text of Senate Bill S.978 at the link. The bill defines illegal streaming of copyrighted content as consisting of “10 or more public performances by electronic means, during any 180-day period of one or more copyrighted works” that has financial value of at least $2,500, an offense it would make punishable by up to five years in prison.

That’s a pretty low threshold, since every click on YouTube is a “public performance”, and most social media sites where consumers might share the work get advertising dollars worth far more than $2,500. Note that the bill does not say that the person accused of infringing on a copyright has to earn $2,500 – they don’t have to get a penny in income the way the law is written.

What it doesn’t do is expand the current copyright law – nothing that’s legal today becomes illegal under S.978. On the other hand, it takes what is a civil tort (a lawsuit which results in civil damages – money paid to the copyright holders) and turns it into a felony (in which the state can collect fines and imprison the person found guilty of the offense). It’s possible to face both civil and criminal penalties for the same crime – and it’s possible that those penalties will be different in each court case.

Who’s behind the Free Bieber campaign

The Free Bieber campaign is nothing short of brilliant, and the group behind it is a new activist group called Fight for the Future which hopes to join the ranks of groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge to inform, lobby, and litigate for Internet users against corporate and government interests they feel unreasonably infringe on the average user’s rights.

Fight for the Future says that, despite claims by Senator Klobuchar’s PR director, the bill poses a very real threat to anyone who embeds videos from YouTube into their Facebook profile or sings or lip synchs to music by famous artists. That’s because the wording of the bill is more than a little vague.

What the law really means for you and me

The bill’s title and defined purpose is to “amend the criminal penalty provision for criminal infringement of a copyright and for other purposes”. The wording of the bill seems to demonstrate two things clearly: (1) it’s intentionally vague, and (2) whoever wrote it has no clue how average American citizens use the Internet.

What it means is that many of the things that average people do every day – sharing a link from YouTube on their Facebook profile, writing and recording their own versions of popular hits and sharing them online, writing fan fiction (or sharing fan fiction links), etc. – could be criminalized.

Senator Cornyn’s office assures me that the bill does no such thing. (But, then, his office assured me that George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq wouldn’t cost the U.S. taxpayers a penny, because the Iraqi people would hail us as liberators and reimburse us for the cost of overthrowing Saddam Hussein from their vast oil wealth, too. So I’m not too willing to take their word for it.)

One of the key provisions of the bill is to define “willful infringement” in a way that could include fan fiction, fan-made music videos, embedding a YouTube video in your Facebook page or website, blogging a game review that includes a screen shot of the actual game, posting a video of a child’s birthday party where the kids are singing the copyrighted song “Happy Birthday”, and many other everyday activities.

I could go on forever with the types of behavior that could be criminalized under the bill – and I’m sure that somewhere on the Internet, someone has come up with a much longer list than mine. For a great article on some of the awful language in the bill, and how innocent YouTube users could be caught in the bills broad language, check out these articles from TechDirt.

Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight for the Future says,“What’s genuinely troubling is that this bill applies to a massive slice of social media activity,” he said. “And if you doubt that the RIAA and MPAA … would push the government to go after teenage Facebook users, remember: these are the same people who used $7,000-per-song civil penalties designed to punish large-scale commercial piracy to sue 14-year-old P2P users and their families.”

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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