Weekend Diversion: And now, they're coming for me. Yeah, me. Because I write for you.

"Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas." -Alfred Whitney Griswold

Those of you who read my weekend post have some inkling that I'm a bit of a sucker for beautifully done covers of songs.

But when they give me chills listening to them, that's when I know I've really found a special one. This week, I'm proud to introduce Rebecca Loebe to you, whom I discovered while watching her audition at NBC's singing competition: The Voice. Have a listen to her hauntingly beautiful cover of Nirvana's Come As You Are, below.

Now, during the week, of course, I write to you about science. About space, the Universe, physics, and so much more. And part of that means I link to other websites, articles, and videos, some of which I also embed.

And now, thanks to new legislation in the U.S. Senate -- introduced by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar -- I am likely to soon become a criminal for it. Not a misdemeanor offender, either, but a full-blown felon. The kind where I can go to prison for a long time, lose my right to vote, etc.

My great offense? Embedding a copyrighted work. For a youtube video, do it ten times in six months, and you can be a felon under U.S. Law, too.

What does it take to make me a felon? Well, did you click on the video above? If you -- and ten others like you -- click on it, and that video gets taken down later, at some point, due to a copyright infringement, I am responsible, and that's going to be a felony offense under U.S. Law.

Sound insane? Stupid? Evil? That doesn't mean this bipartisan bill isn't well on its way to becoming a law. But don't take my word for it. Read the awful piece of legislation, U.S. Senate Bill 978, yourself. You'll see very clearly that the punishment for this offense is a hefty fine and up to five years in prison. For embedding a youtube video, among other things.

What's really awful about this is that it could happen even if Rebecca Loebe is very happy to have her video appear on this site. It could happen even if NBC is very happy to have the advertising for their show, "The Voice," on this site. It could happen because a company like Comcast doesn't like it, or because the RIAA doesn't like it, or because any one of a number of music or media companies doesn't like it. As long as it can be legally construed as a "public performance of a copyrighted work," you could go to prison for it.

The bill has already passed its committee, and it's headed to the full Senate, well on the path to becoming law. And you probably haven't even heard of it until now. Very few sources have been reporting on this.

But you should care. Not just about me, but about the kid in high school or college who uploads a video of them lip-synching to their favorite song. About the online political pundit who embeds a video of a government official making a public statement or a speech in their government building. (Yes, those are copyrighted!) If they come for me, I can fight it. But what about the people without the support of a network of Science Bloggers or a parent company like National Geographic? Don't let them bully you out of your right to say what you want to say, and to say it how you want to say it.

So what can you do? Well, you can do what I did, which is -- if you live in the U.S. -- write your Senator. And tell them to oppose this legislation: Senate Bill 978, and to support free speech, including free speech online. Here is my letter to my U.S. Senator, Jeff Merkley. (I also wrote to my other Senator, Ron Wyden.)

Dear Jeff Merkley,

The most ridiculous bill I've seen in years has just been proposed in the Senate. It turns me, and many others like me, into criminals. And it has just been proposed by a member of your own party.

The Copyright Infringement Bill, S.978, is hugely problematic, poorly written, and would turn millions of American internet users -- people like me, who vote for you -- into criminals.

Sir, I write on the internet. I write about science for the general public, and teach physics and astronomy. I link to files, pictures and videos in my writing. Sometimes those videos turn out to have copyright infringement, and they are later taken down. And under this new law, if I do this too frequently, I become a criminal.

Senator, I am no criminal. I stand behind my writing and my right to do it, and I need you to stand behind me, your constituent, and my right to do it. Help defeat this ridiculous bill.

Thank you.

If you appreciate what I -- or anyone else on the internet -- does, make it known that we shouldn't be subject to a law that can throw us in prison for up to five years for, well, embedding a video on the internet. There are better ways to protect copyright than to make me a criminal. Merkley has written back to me, telling me that he has been hearing from many Oregonians "who support providing U.S. agencies with greater authority to shut down websites." Don't let that be the voice your Senator hears.

And spread the word. It's information, entertainment and education for all of us, and I refuse to believe that I am a criminal for writing this. I'm proud of all we've done here over the years, and I have no intention of stopping it, or of changing how I do it. Don't let them make a law that lets my country throw me in prison for sharing a little bit about the Universe with you.


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Thank you for enlightening me on this bill, which I have not heard of until now.

I have taken steps in hopes of making aware friends, family and especially politicians.

I think 60 years in the slammer will make Ethan Siegel see the error of his ways.

By Matthew Bright (not verified) on 18 Jun 2011 #permalink

Starts with a bang, ends with incarceration!

Free food, free housing, free medical care... prison ain't so bad these days. (...and a cell-block full of bloggers for good company!)

If you liked Rebecca, checkout Jackie Evancho. She is 10 years old and sings like someone 30. I saw her on Great Performances on PBS as a 9 year old. I was blown away. There are YouTubes of her on Americas Got Talent.

By BobatBeach (not verified) on 18 Jun 2011 #permalink

$100B per year? That doesn't even pass a sanity check. That means the average piracy is $300 per American per year. Adjust that for those who don't actually pirate anything, the amount becomes staggering for those who supposedly actually do. Then consider that the number isn't financially realizable in any way: even criminalizing sharing videos will never generate that kind of money for the content providers.

By Timberwoof (not verified) on 18 Jun 2011 #permalink

Interpretation of the bill's language is quite tangled. The article you linked states (or at least implies) that the bill will only affect those who profit by the embedded stream. But the bill itself states that either of two conditions (in addition to the "10 or more performances" language) would result in a violation; either:

1. The total retail value to the infringer or the copyright holder of the performances would exceed $2,500; or
2 . The "total fair market value of licenses to offer the performances" would exceed $5,000.

So it would seem that it's not whether the "infringer" would profit, it's whether the copyright holder (by the way, almost never the author or originator, more often Comcast, Fox, Sony, etc. for those embeds that anyone would pursue) could claim that a license would be worth $5,000 or that the holder could have or the infringer could have realized a retail value of $2,500. I suppose that that would be determined in court. But, as you state, without massive resources this would be difficult for the individual, unfinanced blogger (such as me) to defend. I've embedded a total of two videos in my 213 posts and for one of them I received permission so I guess that, so far, I'm safe.

Quoting our Commander in Chief, "let me be clear," piracy is theft and I don't support it, condone it, or engage in it. But this extraordinarily poorly crafted blunt instrument, written no doubt by RIAA, MPAA, and the other usual suspects, is an unacceptable infringement on free speech.

If you have to go to prison; hope you can keep internet access for your blog.

Breaking the law, is just one of the existential problems of human life. It is impossible to live a single day without breaking some law (e.g. copyright, traffic, tax).

If they ever catch that guy in the red suit with the flying reindeer; he will never get out of jail (e.g. criminal tresspass, ignoring air traffic control, invasion of privacy, copyright/ patent/ trade violations in manufacturing of toys, tariff and the tax violations). If they catch and convict him, Santa Claus is going to prison forever.

By AngelGabriel (not verified) on 19 Jun 2011 #permalink

"Don't let them bully you out of your right to say what you want to say, and to say it how you want to say it."

I really want this part of the blog and I strongly agree with it. Just don't do bad things to other people, I mean that's the basic law. The Mosaic law is given to people as a basic law and I think we must go back to that simple rule.

Don't forget that this could easily turn into a easy way for certain groups to take down websites that they find offensive.

Heck, I'm on Chapter 5 of a chapter review of Your Inner Fish. I'm well past the ten quotes rule.

I wrote both my state's Senators.

So does this mean an end to cover bands as we know them?

By Balthasar25 (not verified) on 20 Jun 2011 #permalink

This is definitely a club, not a scalpel. I can almost guarantee that this was drafted by an RIAA or MPAA lobbying group. I'll be writing my Senators this evening. I wonder if there is an online petition started anywhere?

By iceclimbr (not verified) on 20 Jun 2011 #permalink

Ridiculous. When are these people going to learn that they can't put a muzzle on the internet. This isn't radio and television.

i don't know, it seems okay to me on the surface, sorta. maybe. if you squint.

downloading music and video *is* stealing. but streaming? unless you illegally copy the streaming and save it, it isn't stealing.

isn't this similar to all the litigation concerning people recording tv on those new fangled vcrs years and years ago?

also, why do they go after the person that linked the video and not, say, youtube, who has the content on their freakin' servers?

seems like a misguided effort to update copyright laws to deal with the new internet reality.

oh, and make it a FELONY? what the fuck?

beat someone nearly to death by accident and it is a gross misdemeanor but deprive a corporation of a few bucks and go to jail for 20 years?!!?!??


At most, downloading copyrighted music or video without appropriate permission may be stealing. This is a nontrivial correction: there are a lot of people who want to make us think that there is no public domain, there are no Creative Commons licenses or other broad permissions to use things, and there is no such thing as fair use, no matter what the law says. They would have you believe that picking an apple from your neighbor's tree is theft even if you knocked on the door and asked, and your neighbor said "Sure, I've already picked everything I want this week, take up to a bushel."