White House takes aim at piracy

Victoria Espinel looks to increase penalties for illegal streaming

Illegal and unauthorized online streaming of movies and TV shows would be made a felony under a host of proposals that the White House unveiled on Tuesday as part of its efforts to combat piracy.

A report from U.S. intellectual property enforcement coordinator Victoria Espinel, the administration’s “copyright czar,” spelled out 20 legislative recommendations designed to curb infringement of an array of products. Her recommendations focus on increasing penalties for intellectual property theft and include giving federal authorities the ability to seek wiretaps to investigate suspected copyright and trademark infringement and giving customs authorities and other officials leeway to share information on counterfeit goods with rights holders.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Espinel also recommended passage of a performance right for musicians and artists so they would be paid when their music is played over the air. Such legislation stalled in the last Congress when a compromise plan with broadcasters failed to materialize.

“The theft of American innovation costs jobs and imperils economic growth. This must end,” Espinel wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “We have recommended legislative changes that will help ensure that American workers and businesses are protected.”

Her recommendations include:

• Increasing maximum sentences for economic espionage from 15 to 20 years.

• Increasing the sentencing guideline range for intellectual property offenses, including those committed by organized criminal enterprises and gangs.

• Clearing up a legal ambiguity by ensuring that infringement by streaming, or other similar new technology, is considered a felony. Current law imposes felony penalties for willful copyright infringement, but hinge on whether a title is illegally reproduced or distributed. Defendants have argued that streaming is a mere performance of a work and not a duplication.

• Authorizing Homeland Security officials to share, before a seizure, samples of products and devices with rights holders to determine if they are infringing goods.

• Giving customs officials authority to issue penalties on infringing exports plus increased authority to penalize infringing imports discovered during audits of company records.

The series of recommended steps drew praise from some industry lobbyists, and even from Gigi Sohn, prexy and co-founder of Public Knowledge, a group that’s said some actions to reduce piracy have been too broad and overzealous.

The effort now turns to Capitol Hill.