Streaming via broadband and wireless networks is now the primary delivery method for video, audio, and other content. Copyright pirates have followed suit, deploying new hardware and websites that circumvent streaming services’ paywalls. Content creators have found some success asserting their copyrights through civil lawsuits, but a key ally in opposing large-scale, professional piracy—federal prosecutors—has been largely missing from that fight. Why? An unintended loophole in the Copyright Act imposes a lesser criminal punishment on infringement through streaming than on unlawful copying and distribution of digital downloads. It’s time to close that “streaming loophole.”

Rise and Impact of Unlawful Streaming

An October 2019 report noted that 46% of U.S. households subscribe to at least one streaming service. Covid-19 lockdowns have undoubtedly increased subscriptions. Data isn’t available for all services, but Netflix alone added nearly 16 million new subscribers in three months. Meanwhile, Hamilton hype helped fuel a rise in Disney+ sign-ups. It’s no surprise that subscription-service offerings dominate the recently announced 2020 Emmy nominations.

Content piracy has undergone a parallel evolution.  “Kodi boxes,” slickly designed websites touting access to thousands of TV channels, and “subredits” full of hyperlinks for pirated streams are replacing torrent sites and other means of sharing illegal downloads. Streaming piracy shifted into overdrive during Covid-19 lockdowns, with illegal film viewing up 41% in the U.S., 63% in India, and 43% in the U.K.