A proposed federal law, S 978, has sparked fears that people like Justin Bieber, who got his start performing cover songs on YouTube could end up in jail.
The Commercial Felony Streaming Act, S 978, is currently under review in Congress and was introduced in May. The bill would make unauthorized Web streaming of copyrighted content a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill is supported by media companies and their lobbies, including the recording, film, television and radio industries.
Fight for the Future, an Internet freedom advocacy organization, claims that because copyright law is so expansive, "it applies to lots of completely harmless and common things: like singing a song, dancing to background music, or posting a video of a kids' school play."
The group claims, "Other online video 'crimes' could include: videos of a school play, a professional baseball game, or videos with incidental background music (even just a ringtone)."
Justin Bieber, then a child amateur, first gained acclaim by posting videos of himself singing unauthorized covers of well-known R&B songs, such as Chris Brown's "With You."
Copyright experts, however, say that it is extremely unlikely that Bieber and others like him would be prosecuted.
Terry Hart, an intellectual property law expert, says, "Someone who uploads a video to YouTube is not performing the video - YouTube is."
Under the language of the bill, YouTube, not people, who post content on it, would be held accountable, he said.
Progressive site DemandProgress.org warns that YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Google+, iPhone, Android, AmazonCloud, Pandora, Grooveshark, and e-mail accounts could all be at risk under the bill because they host unauthorized copyrighted material.
Over half a million people have already signed a petition on DemandProgress.org opposing the bill.
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Chris Coons of Delaware, who introduced the bill along with Repbulican John Cornyn of Texas, say it targets Web sites or people who illegally stream copyrighted material with the intent of profiting, not the mother who uploads a video of her daughter dancing to a copyrighted song.
Unfortunately, drawing the line between who plans to profit and who does not is sometimes difficult. Bieber certainly did profit in the long term from posting videos of copyrighted R&B songs that he had no authorization to sing or post on YouTube.
"In short, the proposed legislation changes no law that would [affect] someone uploading a video to YouTube," Hart writes. "Justin Bieber is not going to jail."
Still, the open-ended language of S 978 leave many wondering what the consequences might be if the Commerical Felony Streaming Act passes.
Watch Justin Bieber Sing "With You" on YouTube: