Meerkat, a weeks-old service that allows users to broadcast live video over the Internet via Twitter, is the app du jour. It hit the popularity jackpot at this month's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. And political media have fallen in love with the prospect of live streaming every speech and candidate interaction for the next 18 months.
Meerkat has already has a few tech-friendly politicians on board. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul have hosted streams, and MSNBC's Kasie Hunt interviewed White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on the app last week. And Ben Rubin, Meerkat's founder and CEO, has his sights set even higher: "Our dream is that Obama speaks to the nation from his phone and takes comments," Rubin said.
But as Meerkat tries to keep up with its exploding user base (Rubin says the app hit the 400,000-user mark Tuesday) it may be loping into a legal minefield. The same characteristics that make the app attractive to the hundreds of thousands of people who are downloading it—its ease of use and engaged users—make it perfect for another of the Internet's favorite pastimes: piracy.
Copyright infringement has been a problem since before the Internet existed, and every new generation of technology presents an easier, faster way to share movies and TV without paying. Still, the most intrepid of pirates won't be able to rip an episode in real time, and those looking for bootlegs will at least have to wait at least a few minutes after the broadcast of, say, the season premiere of Game of Thrones (April 12) or the first of the final episodes of Mad Men (April 5).
But there's little stopping a Meerkat user from pointing his or her phone at the TV and streaming whatever's on free and live to whoever wants to watch.
Rubin says copyright infringement hasn't been a problem yet. "It's basically down to the user and the user needs to use it responsibly," he said.
Meerkat has a system for reporting copyright infringement on its website, but it's clearly a work in progress.
Part of the six-step procedure for filing a complaint asks for information that identifies the copyright-infringing material. But the core functionality of the app makes live video disappear once a stream is finished, taking any evidence of copyright infringement with it.
And even if a user is able to compile the necessary information for a complaint, there's no place for it to go: messages sent this week to the email address the company provides for complaints bounced because the account attached to it either doesn't work or doesn't exist.
Rubin was surprised when he heard the email address was down. He had said that Meerkat has never received a copyright complaint, but walked back that claim when he was told the address was offline. "Scratch that!" he said. "I don't know if we didn't get complaints."
He said his team shut down an app it had developed before Meerkat's launch last month, and that the transition likely broke the copyright reporting mechanism. "I'm taking full responsibility—you're absolutely right, that email should work, absolutely," Rubin said.
Meerkat does have a built-in flagging system for problematic content, which Rubin says could be used to alert the company to copyright infringement. When content is flagged, a human checks the stream and decides whether or not to shut it down and block the user, he said.
Online platforms that allow users to post content need to have a formal copyright complaint system in order to avoid legal liability for user-generated content, under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998.
The U.S. Copyright Office requires these platforms to provide a point of contact for copyright complaints in order to qualify for liability limitations under the DMCA. But the agency's directory of copyright complaint officers does not include an entry for "Meerkat" or "Life On Air, Inc.," which is listed as the copyright holder for the app on the Apple App Store.
These copyright concerns aren't new, because Meerkat isn't the first app of its kind. A live streaming app called Ustream that has existed since 2007 is a favorite for broadcasting sports games and even congressional hearings. But Meerkat's SXSW-fueled explosion hurled a relatively niche technology into the mainstream, and may bring rebroadcasting issues back into the spotlight.
For now, the TV and movie industries aren't too worried. A spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America said Hollywood is more preoccupied with larger pirating operations than with casual copyright infringers. "For the majority of people who are camcording, they work in organized groups that are distributing the content for profit," said the MPAA's Kate Bedingfield.
A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters also said the app isn't a problem for broadcasters yet. "Obviously, we would be concerned about [Meerkat users streaming TV] if it involved delivery of broadcast programming," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. "However, we are not aware of any copyright abuses that have been alleged against Meerkat at this point. We're hopeful that Meerkat users will respect the copyright implications of delivering broadcast programming to users without permission of the rights holder."
And whether or not Obama delivers his last State of the Union live through Meerkat, Rubin thinks the app can make a mark on the political scene.
"What happens when a politician speaks directly to people?" Rubin said. "It challenges the politicians in a new way, and it challenges the audience in a new way, and the audience finally gets to speak."