Why Is A Congressional Staffer Teaming Up With A Hollywood Lobbyist To Celebrate Expansion Of Criminal Copyright Laws?
from the this-just-seems-blatantly-corrupt dept
Late last year, we wrote about how bizarre it was that Senator Thom Tillis was trying to force through a felony streaming bill by attaching it to an end-of-the-year appropriations bill. There were so so many problems with this both in terms of what the bill would do, and in the procedural way it was done. First, Tillis got it attached to the “must pass” appropriations bill before he’d even introduced it. That meant that there was no debate and no direct votes on his bill.
You can kinda maybe (but not really?) see where that might make sense for uncontroversial bills, but the felony streaming bill… was not that. Long time readers of Techdirt will know that Hollywood has been pushing for a felony streaming bill for over a decade, and it was originally set to be attached to the infamous SOPA/PIPA bill until the internet rose up and made it clear that it would not accept Congress passing such a dangerous bill. Given that, you’d think that any one who had an honest reason for pushing such a bill would open it up to debate, rather than hide it away in a giant bill. That should give you one giant hint as to why Tillis pushed it the way that he did.
Second, there have been multiple reports about just how much Hollywood has invested in Senator Tillis. And we’ve heard from multiple people now that Tillis bristles at the idea that he’s somehow owned and operated by Hollywood lobbyists. Of course, it would help if he didn’t repeat their talking points at every turn, and turn around and introduce massive copyright reform that was basically an early Christmas gift for Hollywood.
But if Tillis wants to claim that he’s not just doing Hollywood’s billing, you’d think he would not have allowed this to happen. His chief staffer working on these copyright bills, Brad Watts, teamed up with Fox’s chief DC lobbyist, Gail Slater, to write an article patting each other on the back for getting the felony streaming bill passed.
I’ve spoken to multiple DC policy folks both inside and outside of Congress and literally none can think of any other example when a Congressional staffer and a top corporate lobbyist teamed up to write an op-ed together. It’s literally unprecedented. More than one person I spoke to expressed complete bewilderment that this op-ed even came to be. “How did no one in Tillis’ office not realize that this was a bad idea?” was the quote a staffer in another Senate office told me. “It’s shocking.”
But even worse than this out-and-out admission that Tillis does what Hollywood asks him to do, is the content of this article, which is not just revisionist history, but actually celebrates the sneaky way in which Watts (and apparently Slater!) helped sneak this bill through.
Some public policy issues are solutions in search of a problem, but unlawful streaming of copyrighted content is emphatically not one of those issues. U.S. Senators Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Patrick Leahy?s (D-Vt.) Protecting Lawful Streaming Act of 2020 (PLSA) became law in December 2020 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. The importance of this law cannot be overstated. Not only did the PLSA modernize criminal copyright law in a long-overdue and positive direction, but it may also signal a new model for legislating digital copyright law going forward.
First of all, I call bullshit that this was “long overdue,” or that “the importance cannot be overstated.” The article notes, rightly, that legal streaming has become more common, but takes it on faith that “illegal streaming” somehow “costs the U.S. economy nearly $30 billion per year.” Their support for that is… a link to a CNN article quoting Tillis. So, Tillis’s staffer, who is in charge of all of his copyright efforts, is quoting his boss giving a citation that this same staffer almost certainly told his boss to say in the first place. Nifty.
The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the harm from unlawful streaming as worldwide lockdowns led to a surge in online streaming. Not surprisingly, this surge in streaming included an aggressive uptick in unlawful streaming. According to analytics firm Muso, the unlawful streaming of films alone increased by 33 percent globally during lockdowns. The rise was even higher in the United States at an eye-popping 41 percent increase in unlawful streaming during lockdowns.
I mean, I don’t want to make too many assumptions here, but maybe (just maybe) the reason for the uptick in illegal streaming was because millions of people lost their jobs, had no money because Senator Thom Tillis tried to block stimulus packages, and are stuck at home because there’s a global freaking pandemic going on. So, maybe it’s not like those people have the spare cash to sign up for authorized streaming services at this moment, and it’s not exactly a priority given everything else going on.
The article goes on to falsely claim that streaming not being a felony was “a loophole.” It was not. As was discussed when this first came up a decade ago, there were legitimate reasons why Congress chose not to make infringing streaming a felony offense. Indeed, there are strong arguments that copyright should solely be a civil offense, and never a criminal one. Making it criminal basically is making US law enforcement the private tort enforcer for Hollywood, which represents a massive subsidy to those industries, such that they no longer have to get their own hands dirty (or spend their own money) on taking infringers to court.
Then, the article engages in some incredibly historical revisionism regarding the original attempt at making streaming a felony, and what happened with SOPA/PIPA.
Despite careful crafting by the legislation?s sponsors, PIPA and SOPA were met with opposition from a range of legitimate stakeholders representing internet and consumer equities. Their advocacy against PIPA/SOPA culminated in over 5 thousand petitions per minute to the U.S. Congress, about 4 million tweets on the legislation, and petitions submitted to Congress containing 8 million signatures.
Concerns about the felony streaming provisions in PIPA/SOPA centered on the perception that, as drafted, it could lead to criminal prosecution of individual artists who regularly used platforms such as YouTube to upload their performances.
Ultimately, the sheer intensity of the opposition to PIPA/SOPA culminated in the legislation being withdrawn from consideration. This opposition took creative content industries and legislators by surprise and resulted in an unwillingness, for many years, to address what was perceived as such a controversial, complicated, and even unfixable issue.
I mean, just the very idea that SOPA/PIPA were crafted “carefully” is laughable for anyone who knows the real story, in which Lamar Smith did a Leroy Jenkins move, yanking the bill away from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (who had tried to write a more carefully constructed bill) and lit it up like a Tillis-style Christmas tree for Hollywood.
Then there’s this fun bit of nonsense:
So, What Changed? Why Now? In the years since PIPA/SOPA, the entire internet and digital copyright ecosystem has changed. Simultaneously, traditional lines dividing content creator industries and tech-heavy startups have blurred, creating more shared interests and equities. Several internet platforms have evolved their business models and are now original content creators themselves.
No, what changed this time was that you refused to introduce it through the normal process, kept it hidden until after it was already lumped into the must pass appropriations bill that was being debated contentiously for other reasons between Congress and a lame duck President in the middle of a pandemic (and an insane propaganda campaign to undermine the results of an election). That’s what changed.
Senator Tillis and Leahy?s bill evaded the criticisms that the felony streaming provision in PIPA/SOPA received and does not capture individual internet users or legitimate businesses and content creators, including, likely to some people?s disappointment, Justin Bieber.
Members of Congress and copyright stakeholders across the board were invited to the negotiating table on an equal footing. Negotiations proceeded in good faith and no stone was left unturned as stakeholders gamed out the real-world implications of the draft legislative text.
No, this is not what happened. At all. I spoke to stakeholders from consumer rights groups and internet platforms, and they said that they were just as blindsided by this bill as we were. Again, if this was all about getting all the stakeholders together and coming up with a workable bill for everyone why didn’t Tillis just release it as normal? Why did he get it stuffed into the appropriations bill, and not even release the text of the bill until it was clear that there would never be an up-and-down vote on the bill itself?
And that’s also why this bill “evaded criticism.” Because it was done in a way and at a time when so much other stuff was going on.
That’s only underlined by the fact that Tillis’ top copyright staffer felt he could reveal “the sausage making process” in combination with one of Hollywood’s top lobbyists, without anyone blinking an eye. The fix was in, and that fix sure looks corrupt. At the very least, this is the kind of “soft corruption” that we’ve talked about before. Even if everything was legitimate, just the fact that Watts and Slater know they can co-author an article about how they got this controversial bill approved gives the public the impression of corruption, and supports the idea that Tillis is completely in the tank for Hollywood.
It damages public trust in government, as it underlines the idea that Senators like Tillis are there to serve the desires of their funders, and not the public he was elected to represent.