from the that-would-be-a-mistake dept
Late last night I started hearing rumors that Senator Harry Reid was looking to slip a little something extra into the USA Freedom Act: a key part of SOPA. As you should know by now, last week, Reid surprised many by moving for a cloture vote on the USA Freedom Act. While still controversial in civil liberties circles, many are supportive of this bill as a good first step in surveillance reform -- including EFF and ACLU -- while others are perhaps reasonably concerned about what the bill actually provides. Yesterday, the big tech companies came out in favor of it.
However, yesterday evening I heard through the grapevine that Reid also had a little "gift" he was planning to add to the bill, and I've spent a big part of last night tracking down any details I could find. Basically, Reid wants to attach a part of SOPA to the bill: the felony streaming provisions. You may recall that this was the dangerous plan that was a part of SOPA and a companion to PIPA (though not directly in it) that would have turned merely streaming infringing works into a felony. This got a ton of attention after Fight for the Future created its Free Justin Bieber campaign, after noting that Bieber came to fame by streaming lots of videos of music he didn't license the rights to. Even after SOPA died, the White House still listed the felony streaming stuff in its big wish list. And, just a few months ago, the Justice Department told Congress it wanted streaming to be a felony too.
The reality is that this would be a pretty big expansion of criminalizing copyright infringement. As we explained years ago, there's a reason why "performance" isn't considered a felony in copyright law. Expanding the criminalization of copyright, especially for something as simple as streaming content puts a ton of people at risk. And yes, according to Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, someone doing what Bieber did would face jail time, which is ridiculous.
So why is Reid suddenly doing this? What we've heard is that it's a "favor" to his friends at UFC -- Ultimate Fighting Championship -- who are based in Las Vegas, in Reid's home state of Nevada. Reid and UFC go back for years, with UFC being big supporters of Reid, and UFC has worked with Reid on a number of campaigns. UFC has also been one of the biggest supporters of expanding and abusing copyright law for years. The organization has sued its biggest fans, has sued streaming sites like Justin.tv (and lost) and even claimed copyright on videos it has no rights to, taken by fans.
So it's no surprise that with Reid and UFC being so chummy -- while UFC has staked out a strong public position to expand copyright criminalization -- that Reid would like to do this "favor" for his friends. But it's a massive slap in the face to the tech industry -- Reid's second such massive slap this year. Remember, earlier this year, after the tech industry had finally, finally gotten a few important pieces (not nearly enough, but a great start) for patent reform to the finish line, Harry Reid got a phone call from the trial lawyers and killed the whole thing? If he actually goes through with this plan, it will be yet another massive slap in the face to Silicon Valley. Perhaps that's the reputation Harry Reid wants. The Senator who gives out personal favors to friends, and stands in the way of innovation. I can't imagine that will go over well in the long run. Furthermore, it's almost as if Reid has totally forgotten what happened around SOPA. I can assure him that those who fought against SOPA have not forgotten.
The last I've heard on this so far is that Reid is still looking for a bit more support to attach this to the USA Freedom Act. Hopefully no one gives it to him, and this idea simply goes back in the trash can where it belongs.
Update: Senator Reid's office has posted a response to this story claiming that this is all spin from "Republicans who want to tank" the USA Freedom Act. That's not actually true. While I'm not going to reveal my (multiple) sources on this, Reid's explanation is not at all accurate. We confirmed this with multiple sources -- nearly all of whom are in favor of the USA Freedom Act. We did hear one rumor that there was an effort under way to get a Republican on board to support this plan, but we didn't report that because we couldn't get detailed confirmation on it. What we're now hearing from others, however, is that Reid's office is trying to point the finger directly at one specific Republican Senator, and we have a request in to his office to see if he wants to comment.