Free Bieber: campaign to kill proposed law that would send you to prison for 5 years for singing copyrighted music on YouTube

By Cory Doctorow

S.978, a new bill in Congress, makes it a felony to post videos that contain copyright-infringing music, with up to five years in prison for violators. The clever folks at Fight for the Future have noticed that this law would have put Justin Bieber in jail, since he launched his career by posting videos of himself singing R&B tunes, in violation of copyright. The Free Bieber campaign is aiming to raise awareness of the campaign to fight S.978 and keep posting videos of yourself singing music legal, and they've got plenty of info for helping you fight the bill and enlist your friends to do the same. After you sign, you can submit a webcam video "from behind bars" explaining why jail-time for ordinary internet users is a terrible idea (they're calling it the "Biebercam"). You can also submit your own photos of Bieber in jail to their Tumblr.

Just a kid, singing a song
This is a video of child celebrity Justin Bieber singing "With You" by the artist Chris Brown. YouTube videos like this one were what made him famous. Tons of kids do this for fun, and many now-popular artists got started in this same way.

Wait-- it's illegal?
Copyright law is so extreme, just singing somebody else's song in public could be infringement. Because he and his mother posted the videos to advance his music career, it's commercial infringement. And a new bill would make this a felony.

5 years in jail, for singing!
The maximum sentence would be five-years, just for singing a cover! Other online video "crimes" could include: videos of a school play, a professional baseball game, or videos with incidental background music (even just a ringtone). Nuts, right?

Published 3:13 pm Wed, Oct 19, 2011

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

97 Responses to “Free Bieber: campaign to kill proposed law that would send you to prison for 5 years for singing copyrighted music on YouTube”

  1. Guest says:

    I’m torn on this one. I mean, I think the law is dumb, but getting that kid off the streets….

  2. Leonhart von Stahlmann says:

    @mdhatter03:disqus Just my point… Bieber and no stupid law vs No Biber and stupid law… Means less kids singing RnB and LadyGaga tunes on YT…. hmmm.. somehow not right, but tempting…

  3. James Kimbell says:

    Half my favorite youtubers are young folks who sing cover songs.

  4. sideunes says:

     reminds me of the movie jailbait

  5. Sooooo who exactly is being damaged by this? Why is legislation necessary? Is it even possible to prove loss when someone covers a tune a uploads it? Wouldn’t cover bands be outlaws then? If not, why treat live performance different than recorded? Espcially if the recorded performance isn’t even monetized? OCCUPY YOUTUBE!

    • johndburger says:

      Cover bands pay license fees.

    • xzzy says:

      Cover bands can and do get in trouble.. but it’s not them that pays the licensing, it’s the venue they play at that does. Ask your bartender about ASCAP sometime.

    • Anonymoo5e says:

      If there were no Bieber, then those original artists would be getting more work.

      On the other plus side, would this mean an end to ‘sampling’?  Because god knows, I’d LOVE to see hip-hop music die, stillborn on the mean streets.

    • John Hayes says:

      I completely agree with you, but one point: cover bands are legally able to perform cover songs because (in theory at least) the venues are paying their dues to the music publishers.  It’s the venues obligation to do this.  Technically, the performer is also obligated to find out if the venue is paying its fees, but in practice performers are almost never targeted by the applicable laws.  Venues are, however–even some out of the way places regularly are contacted by the “ASCAP cops.”  But yes, I agree, this law is ridiculous .

  6. Sean Quinn says:

    It isn’t just music this relates to, it’s any copyrighted material. For example video games, so goodbye

  7. Chris Kern says:

    So this would pretty much kill NBC’s ” The Sing-Off”, along with every collegiate a cappella group in existence. Heck, MOST a cappella groups in existence. 

  8. dendodge says:

    Incidental inclusion is infringement? That’s just dumb. If I record a video of myself doing something completely non-infringing in public, and someone happens to walk past with a pop song as a ringtone, I can go to prison?

    IIRC, UK copyright law explicitly excludes incidental inclusion of copyrighted works. That makes far more sense…

    As for uploading videos of yourself singing to YouTube, I actually thought that was already copyright infringement. Pursuing it would be both dumb and a monumental waste of time – there are far better things for the music companies’ legal  teams to do than that, surely?

    After  all, these YouTubers probably give them a fair amount of publicity…

    • wrecksdart says:

      No, actually, incidental inclusion is NOT infringement.  Go to the Center for Social Media’s site on fair use and read section 3.  And, incidentally, if you’d like to evaluate your own works to check their copyright status, the American Library Association has a good list of online evaluation tools.  In addition to those resources, check out Cornell’s Copyright Information Center for another good list of resources (no, I didn’t sing in the “Here Comes Treble” group, but thanks for wondering).
      Finally, know that copyright is a freakin maze of who, what, why, how, etc., so don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something (post a video, take a picture, etc.) because it’s copyrighted–find out the facts yourself, or take your questions to a friendly local librarian (or even one at the Internet Public Library).

  9. markbellis says:

    ” The clever folks at Fight for the Future have noticed that this law would have put Justin Bieber in jail” if US law applied to Stratford, Ontario, where he recorded his first videos.

  10. Way for our political leaders to waste time and show how completely out of touch they are, as well as distract from the REAL issues.

    So, if my kid posts a video from a road trip where we’re laughing in the car and one of JUST HAPPENS to start singing along with the radio, we’re now infringing copyright? Remind me to confiscate all recording equipment so we can continue our underground infringement of the record company’s legal rights….

    What about every professional musician who happens to cover someone else’s song in concert? Happy Birthday is still under copyright (which is why most restaurants don’t sing it) – are they going to charge every person who posts a YouTube video of a birthday party?
    As for Bieber, since he was in Canada, and the videos were viewed in the US, would the FBI become involved since the vilation occured over international borders?

    • sincarne says:

      Mastermind, you’re already infringing since the radio is playing and you’re recording it.

      You criminal fiend.

  11. Nylund says:

    Justin is Canadian and was probably in Canada when he recorded and uploaded those songs.  I don’t think he would have gone to jail…not as long as he stayed out of the US.  

    • snoboarder2k6 says:

      Except that he made the copyrighted material available in the U.S. That means that he committed a crime here even though he was in canada at the time. It’s the same as the european gambling sites that took American money, they were committed a crime in the U.S. even though they weren’t in the country.

    • GregS says:

      Except that if he uploaded them to YouTube, which is owned by a U.S. company and is hosted in the U.S., prosecutors could argue that the offense took place in the United States.

  12. goldenmansacks says:

    Holy crap. Is this congress just trying to piss us off?

  13. DreadJester says:

    Perhaps I’m wrong or my information is old but I believe that “Happy Birthday,” the song we all sing at every birthday party, is copyrighted.  Guess we’ll have to make up a new song or all go to jail.  Talk about jail overcrowding….

  14. cdh1971 says:

    Welcome to yet another element of the ‘New World Order’ promoted by One Percenters such as George Bush the Elder. 

    A few years ago there was talk of including circuitry in all electronic recording devices that would detect audio code (not audible to human ears) embedded  in all copy-written material that would instantly shut down the device. 

    So, for example, you’re audio or video recording your kid, friend or whomever in a park and there was copy-written music in the background – your recording device would shut off. If you’re at a wedding and attempting to video the bride and groom’s first married dance  – you wouldn’t be able to if there was a DJ playing popular tunes. 

    I don’t remember the specifics of where this idea went, except it doesn’t seem to have been implemented.

  15. SkylerNelson says:

    I’m with congress on this one, but I think they’re not shooting high enough: what we need is a law that prevents children from having fun in all other situations.

  16. Art says:

    This, my friends, is how our legislators spend their time.  Thinking up insane ways to put people in jail.

    Sometimes I think all of our law makers have a vested financial interest in our bloated, over crowded penal system.

    • KashmirKong says:

      Not so much thinking it up as the entertainment industry paying them to create these laws.

    • MythicalMe says:

      Legislators don’t think these bills up, they come pre-written with a suggestion that it be introduced and a reminder of how much money was donated last campaign. It’s the legislator’s job to find a way to get the bill into law, usually as a rider on another bill that is likely to get passed.

      This is what the “Occupy” movement is all about, but the people who should be listening aren’t. Congress critters don’t care. So the bail-outs and corporate welfare will continue.

    • GregS says:

      Re:  “Sometimes I think all of our law makers have a vested financial interest in our bloated, over crowded penal system.”

      Well, they do. Police unions, prison guard unions, contractors that build prisons, and private companies that run some prisons, all have a lot of political influence and all make campaign contributions and can actively campaign for or against candidates.

    • True, Art, except I doubt the legislators “thought it up”.  They were handed the order by their masters.  And they might not have a financial interest in the crowded prisons — they might not even think that far —  but they sure have an interest in doing what the lobbyists and contributors tell them to do. 

  17. was a time i used to love your country.

  18. Palomino says:

    A photo of an incarcerated  rapper with one of his fresh young fans as his cell mate. 

  19. Michael Dawson says:

    Land of the free? Land of the fee more like.

  20. Narfig_Agar says:

    Wait, I don’t understand.  They want to repeal/remove Compulsory Mechanical Licensing?  Anyone can cover, record and release an already released song as long as the mechanical license is paid. A law like this would be very costly and bad for much of the music industry.

    I wonder if this about YouTube etc not wanting to pay performing rights for songs “broadcast” under their service.  Or it could be someone mis-understanding copyright law…. 

  21. GrumpySteen says:

    It’s all part of the master plan.

    For as long as it has existed, the prison system has been plagued with violence.  The current overpopulation is aggravating that problem and all attempts to address it have failed… until now.

    The solution is blindingly simply: we need to stop putting violent people in jail and put non-violent people in jail instead!

    This law is our first step toward ending prison violence.  Why would anyone oppose it?

  22. Simon Tooke says:

    Just a shout out to the Canadian (you do remember Canada?) DCMA (Bill C-11), that the Conservatives are trying to shove down our throats.  Probably written by the MPAA, for the most part, according to WikiLeaks.

    We (the 99%) are about to get screwed just a little more.

  23. daev says:

    From wikipedia:
    “It is an amendment to USC 2319, Title 18, that would make unauthorized
    streaming of copyrighted material for the purpose of “commercial
    advantage or personal financial gain”, a felony (under current law, unauthorized streaming is only a misdemeanor).
    The penalty could include up to five years of prison-time. It defines
    illegal streaming as streaming ten or more times in a 180 day period.
    Furthermore, the value of the illegally streamed material would have to
    be greater than $2,500, or the licensing fees would have to be over

    So, pretty misleading headline. Way to go.

    • Trent Baker says:

      So it would seem on the face of it. But when that video launches your career doesn’t that then mean the video has given you commercial advantage and financial gain?
      Surely something that will stop more Beiber clones must be a good thing.

    • Ryan Scheel says:

      And from an Austrian Economic perspective, this law is limited to a subjective measure. Who can objectively determine the value of something?

  24. BBNinja says:

    Suing/Jailing people for singing your songs…yeah…that’s a great way to get people to buy your music.  On principle alone, I would refuse to buy music from any artist/label adhering to or advocating this policy.

  25. digi_owl says:

    Hurray for the “knowledge” economy…

  26. jeligula says:

    This scares me as I have classical guitar videos on Youtube under the same user ID as here. So far, everything that I have posted was published in books or magazines, but I sure would hate to do 5 years just because I figured out a song I heard on the radio.

  27. awjt says:

    Fair use?

  28. KashmirKong says:

    I don’t understand how a law that would have saved us from Justin Bieber and all the nonsense surrounding him is supposed to be regarded as a bad thing.

  29. cmer says:

    From the Library of Congress bill summary page (

    “Amends the federal criminal code to provide for imprisonment for up to 5 years, a fine, or both, for criminal infringement of a copyright where the offense consists of 10 or more public performances by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of one or more copyrighted works and where: (1) the total retail value of the performances, or the total economic value of such performances to the infringer or to the copyright owner, would exceed $2,500; or (2) the total fair market value of licenses to offer performances of those works would exceed $5,000.

    Includes, within copyright provisions protecting works from criminal infringement, the public performance of a work being prepared for commercial distribution.”

  30. Bauart says:

    When our country’s laws are written by lawyers, for lawyers (and corporations) to make money… this is what happens. It’s a law that protects no one.

  31. boise427 says:

    This illustrates the fact that our lawmakers have been bought by corporate America. This is what occupy wall street is all about. Of course supposedly liberal Hollywood is strangely silent about this movement as it will affect their elite negatively.

  32. Graysmith says:

    Every single singer or musician started by playing someone else’s song. In the past, they did it in front of a mirror, in the shower or in front of their hometown on a talent show. This isn’t really any different, it’s just the world has changed. Artists definitely deserve their fair share of what they created, but I can’t imagine there’s a single musician out there who genuinely would support this because if they do they were just as “crooked” when they first started.

    When you thought humanity couldn’t get any stupider, we find a way.

  33. perchecreek says:

    As my first act of civil disobedience, I shall perform  4’33”.

  34. perchecreek says:

    Thank you. Thank you.

  35. BBNinja says:

    Hrmmm…so this would make posting videos of public karaoke illegal as well? :/

  36. peromyscus says:

    Five years in jail for stealing $5,000 worth of music – that you “stole” by putting a commercial soundtrack to a video of your cat catching a laser dot in a cute YouTube video and/or you posted a vid of your five year old warbling something at a birthday party? 

    Seems a tad excessive. 

    I think real people are clear on the difference between kids in a car singing Bohemian Rhapsody (free) and actors pretending to be kids in a car singing Bohemian Rhapsody for beaucoup bucks in Wayne’s World (license fee to be paid to songwriters).   If Uncle Jim posts a YouTube video showing the world how to play the chords for Angie (again) should that be free, or is he a felon owing $5,000 and losing many of his citizenship rights?  I’m tending towards ‘free’ here myself. 

    BTW, for those commenters asking about cover bands and waiters singing Happy Birthday – all music venues are supposed to, and most actually do, pay mechanical fees for any covers performed there. Restaurants don’t, and singing Happy Birthday is indeed illegal in such places.  FWIW.

  37. Kevin_Carson says:

    Hey, if it puts Bieber in jail maybe it’s not so bad after all.  As for Bieber actually surviving on the inside — not even gonna go there.

  38. vicx says:

    I kind of wish we could go back to 240-480p blurrovision youtube because often it meant copyright infringing material was let go. We made it so far in terms of creativity during that time I guess it has given us something to fight for now. The memory of a time of freedom. OK it is time to fight – what can we do to support artists and performers (publishers cansecrew themselves) – what is the proposal on the table?

  39. oasisob1 says:

    “Ignoring Occupy Whatever isn’t working. Quick! Distract them with some crazy legislation!”

    Please, people, it’s a trap. Don’t fall for it.

  40. jimkirk says:

    And how many jobs will this create?

  41. WoodGas1 says:

    Greed has no boundaries, air tax, that will come next. All you freeloaders out there breathing for free, just isn’t right. Any one have a patent on air yet? Hmmm…disregard this post, I’ve got papers to file.

    “The problems we face today cannot be solved on the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” – Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

  42. Justin Sabe says:

    Times was rough for Bieb in prison. We all know he will be catching, that little punk; the tats in the picture seem to show he killed at least 2.  

  43. Daemonworks says:

    I don’t know… their choice of a poster-celeb could backfire, what with the number of people who would like very much to see him in jail.

  44. amnyc says:

    The US Senate resolution (S. 978) is currently in committee, and I do not see any evidence that it has been taken up by the US House. It has not come for a vote in the full Senate or in committee yet.

    According to the bill’s text, the 3 sponsors of it are Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Chris Coons (D-DE).

    If you live in one of those states, please contact your senator and tell them what you think of this bill!

    Incidentally, the bill makes no mention of YouTube or songs specifically- it only increases the penalty for unauthorized performance or distribution of copyrighted material to 5 years (and the wording is sufficiently vague that yes, it is plausible that posting a video on YouTube would violate the proposed statute.)

  45. Vikram Kundle says:

    i like this post ……….
    good story………
    thanks ….

  46. Jay Sanchez says:

    Why the big surprise? your vice president is a good friend of the music industry and from day one promissed this kind of shenanigans.

  47. Stonewalker says:

    Out of all the insane laws Congress passes, it tends to be copyright laws that most often make me think “well this seems to be the point at which we should shoot the bastards”.  Strange how often that happens…

  48. What do I care! This is the first step to total annihilation of the majors. They are giving themselves a backstab. Who will like a song, if he isn’t allowed to show his appreciation, sing it or whatever. I give a FUCK about big names and support independent artists. If other people are too fucking stupid to do the same, it is not my problem nor should it be yours! Oh and the europeans are for once faster than the Ammis. A childrens choir has been sued for signing someones christmas songs and not notifying GEMA…

  49. loroferoz says:

    Don’t you get a warm feeling from all of this? I do. Right now I have a huge smirk contorting my features. Sardonic laughter is not far beyond.
    Copyright law is going to break down, fail, crash and burn. No two ways about it. It has gone from ridiculous to ludicrous. Something is gonna break if it’s already not broken.For trying to forbid victim-less actions that normal persons do all the time, victim-less except for some rapacious “rights” holders. Not that I am against all copyright. But that trying to take it beyond the bounds of reason, ethics, practicality and common sense will only make it collapse, to be succeeded by a better system. I hope it will drag down those responsible for making it more ridiculous, so we get rid of several RIAA members in the bargain. The “rights” holder associations are generally hated in the industrial world; irrelevant and ignored in the developed world. Will they sit around and think about how to sell in a different age, or will they go on until they ruin themselves?

  50. Frederik says:

    But what’s the point? The record industrie isn’t loosing money from people covering songs on Youtube. Infact nowadays that’s how they discover new pop stars to exploite.

  51. RJ says:

    This kind of thing reminds me of stories from old Soviet Russia. Before the fall of communism there, the people were too scared to say or do ANYTHING publicly, for fear that the government thugs would drag them off to the gulags. They were right to be afraid, because jail time absolutely was a real threat. The government in those days routinely worked prisoners to death. It was essentially free & legal slave labor for them, as opposed to having to pay official government employees to do the same work. That way, the higher-ups could pocket the difference, and the cowering populace served as a stockyard from which they could replenish the slave labor pool.

    I realize the comparison seems a bit lopsided, but you have to remember that it was laws just like this one – a law against singing popular songs! – that allowed the powerful Soviets to control the population.

    As it stands, it’s not against copyright to post a cover song on YT as long as you’re not doing it for profit and as long as you credit your source. Isn’t that good enough? I say we out the commie prick who proposed this law and have them tarred & feathered.

  52. Telecustard says:

    “Sometimes I think all of our law makers have a vested financial interest in our bloated, over crowded penal system.”
    If you mean the Corrections Corporation of America, then you are correct.

    “In a 2009 editorial, political commentator Bill Maher is quoted, “Prisons used to be a non-profit business… The CCA and similar corporations actually lobby Congress for stiffer sentencing laws so they can lock more people up and make more money. That’s why America has the world’s largest prison population — because actually rehabilitating people would have a negative impact on the bottom line.”[14]

  53. wizardru says:

    It’s clear that the INTENT of the bill is to catch people intentionally trying to infringe rights.  The transcript of the congressional hearing about it makes it clear that the bill’s goal is to prevent intentional distributors of copyrighted material for profit.  It’s also clear that the overbroad language will make it a non-starter.  Even if it were to be passed, which is unlikely given that it’s been out of committee for months and no one has picked it up, it would never stand up to a constitutional challenge.  The language is totally lacking in specificity about the nature of “commercial advantage or personal financial gain”, making it a lawsuit waiting to happen.  And if youtube hosts a video considered to be infringing, who is liable: youtube or the poster?  The bill gives no guidance if the person posts but it’s youtube that puts up an ad and makes money out of it.

    From the hearing:  “At a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting about the bill on June 9 (you can watch the entire hearing over here), Klobuchar said the bill wasn’t targeting ordinary individuals but egregious offenders. Her analogy involved a street peddler selling pirated CDs and DVDs. If their inventory’s worth more than $2500, it’s a felony. Someone doing the same thing through streaming is limited to a misdemeanor.

    “The bill is not intended nor does it allow law enforcement to prosecute people who may stream videos and other copyrighted works to their friends without intending to profit from the work of the copyright owner,” she said. “It also does not allow prosecutors to go after individuals that innocently post links on their blogs to copyrighted protected works.”

    “For this bill to affect someone, the person would have to be already committing a crime under current law,” she continued. “This bill just makes the worst of those crimes and makes them a felony.”

    • Brainspore says:

      It’s clear that the INTENT of the bill is to catch people intentionally trying to infringe rights.

      Thankfully no prosecutor would ever, ever think of using a law for any purpose other than its original intent.

  54. trefecta says:

    And the last time the law was looked at ‘in spirit’ with copyright cases was when?

    And even if someone was doing something like this illegaly, is it really worth throwing them in prison? Now society has to pay for them?

    Oh right, prison industrial system.
    Gotta love state-slaves. Not like gulags at all.

  55. hugh crawford says:

    The phrase “commercial advantage or personal financial gain” can and has been interpreted to mean almost anything where you publish, preform or exhibit anything under your own name since that could lead to you getting a job.  I have had that used on me where I was photographing in a state park without a permit with a big black camera, because if  I ever showed the photos to someone who might hire me that would be “commercial advantage or personal financial gain”

    I guess if you publish, preform or exhibit anything anonymously you might be ok.

  56. Flá says:

    This law is ridiculous! They say you have free speech and you’re free to do whatever you want in the internet, and now they put enormous walls between pop culture and the fans.
    I am not fond of Bieber either but this law means I can’t post videos of my friends and I making impressions of movie characters, for example? We’re not making money out of it, so I don’t see it as copyright infringement.

  57. koos kalkman says:

    Time for new ways. The lobby of the musicindustry has made copyright ridiculous. Collecting societies, music publishers, managers and record companies, they all seem to
    profit from the artists.  The internet is an inspiring  marketing environment for
    new and promising artists. Let them use VillaMusicRights or Creative Commons.

  58. alex brook says:

    YouTube would be fined of course, for receiving stolen property ^ x. The Internet might go BOOM!

  59. Joseph Chang says:

    I wouldn’t mind seeing this law passed but with a lighter penalty, such as like a 5/10K fine or something. 

    It would save many ears and spur more original content. 

  60. Lani Lamster says:

    this is a truly dumb law…

  61. Johanna Cristine Dy says:

    That’s crazy! I disagree to this law!! D:<

  62. blackjack56 says:

    say the bill passes all you have to do is move country

  63. Alex Lippett says:


  64. xox.rachel.wolf says:

    This is just stupid. Don’t they have more important things to deal with? apparently not…
    needless to say, I’m totally against this