Is movie streaming copyright infringement in the United States?

Is movie streaming copyright infringement in the United States?

When an artist creates a work like a painting or a movie that artist is granted a copyright to the work.  Copyright grants the artist a number of rights.  The rights granted by copyright include the right to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies of the work, to publicly perform the work, to publicly display the work and to publicly transmit the work. When another person performs one of the activities which is a right of the artist, that is called copyright infringement.

The Copyright laws of the United States were written long before computers were as common as they are today.  The law makers that created the copyright law had no way of knowing about the technological advances that would be made in the past few decades.  In the past to reproduce a movie it would take specialized equipment and copies would need to be physically moved from one place to another.  Today a movie can easily be turned into a digital file and distributed around the world in a matter of minutes.

Courts have held that downloading an entire copyrighted movie is copyright infringement because a copy of the movie has been made.  But what if a copy of the movie is not made?

Streaming media is content sent in compressed form over the Internet and displayed by the viewer in real time. With streaming media, a user does not have to wait to download a file to play it. Instead, the media is sent in a continuous stream of data and is played as it arrives. The user needs a player, which is a special program that uncompresses and sends video data to the display and audio data to speakers. A player can be either an integral part of a browser or a separate program.  Technology such as streaming media did not exist when the copyright laws of the United States were written.

The question then becomes whether streaming a copyrighted movie infringes the copyright of the artist that created the movie.  At first some courts held that streaming a copyrighted movie was more like sneaking into a movie theater without buying a ticket.  The activity was not legal but it was not considered copyright infringement.  There were opposing decisions from different courts on whether streaming copyrighted material was copyright infringement. When different courts interpret the same law it is up to the Supreme Court of the United States to determine how the law should be interpreted.

The Supreme Court ruled on whether streaming media is copyright infringement in American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo, 573 U.S. ___ 134 S. Ct. 2498 (2014). In that case Aereo was recording live television broadcasts and streaming the recordings to users.  The court held that Aereo’s actions were copyright infringement.  The court reasoned that the streaming was a public performance, even though the stream was only sent to one user.  The court looked at the intent of the law, and reasoned that the intent was to prevent streaming, even if the text of the law did not specifically mention streaming.

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