Copyright law in the United States continues to evolve as technology changes and new ways to copy and distribute creative works are developed. Streaming of live and recorded events is the latest technology to test the efficacy of the copyright laws. In the same way that the music and movie industries have been battling downloading and file-sharing services for the past decade, sports leagues and pay-per-view (PPV) producers are trying to assert their intellectual property rights against websites that siphon off profits through unauthorized streaming of live and recorded performances over the Internet. Legislators have begun to tackle the problem of willful unauthorized streaming that significantly damages an industry, and new copyright laws have been proposed to clarify civil penalties and establish criminal penalties.
Rights of Copyright Holders
Copyright gives the creator of an original artistic work various rights to control and profit from the creation for a set amount of time. Those rights include the right to profit from the reproduction, distribution, public performance and public display of the work. Any creative work fixed in a tangible form enjoys copyright protection, including live performances fixed in an audiovisual format. Sporting events are live performances fixed in tangible form through public demonstration by the people organizing the event and recording of the event for current and future broadcast. The U.S. Copyright Act gives copyright holders who register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office the ability to prosecute infringers in federal civil court and receive damages as outlined in the statute. However, a creator owns a copyright at the moment it is fixed in a tangible form, regardless of whether it is registered.
Definition of Streaming
The courts have regularly held that illegal downloading of copyrighted material is an infringing act that can subject both the downloader and the facilitator to civil penalties. Streaming content is not the same activity as downloading content. Downloading saves a copy of a work locally and distributes that copy to other parties illegally. Streaming, on the other hand, is the ability to watch live and archived content as it plays. The activity does not reproduce the protected content as is the case when a file is reproduced and disseminated through downloading. A stream plays once and disappears from the watcher's computer screen afterwards.
In 2011, the producers of PPV wrestling matches estimated that they were losing 10 percent of the multi-million dollar revenue stream for each live PPV broadcast. Sports leagues, such as the NBA and NFL, have similarly begun to explore ways to prosecute websites that stream live sporting events that people would ordinarily purchase through their cable or satellite television service. Since streaming is not exactly analogous to downloading, some confusion exists as to the best ways to apply existing copyright law to streamers. It is reasonably clear that illegally streaming copyrighted material, particularly a live or PPV broadcast, violates the copyright holder's exclusive right to profit from public performance and may also violate the rights to distribution and reproduction; however, until a case involving streaming makes it through the federal court system, it is difficult to predict how the courts will apply the law in this area.
Copyright law in the U.S. establishes criminal liability for willful acts of infringement by downloading and distributing copyrighted material. Consequently, pirates who download a movie prior to its release and distribute it over the Internet can be sent to jail for their actions. As of 2012, Congress is considering passing the Commercial Felony Streaming Act, which would add criminal liability to copyright law for willfully and illegally streaming copyrighted material that results in significant economic harm to the copyright holder. The law is targeted at websites that provide access to the illegal streams rather than the people who watch.