Meerkat and Periscope made livestreaming hip again—at least for a few weeks, before much of the hype died down. After all, both are tools for broadcasting what’s happening to the streamer in real time, which often means sharing the mundane goings-on of everyday life (think the Periscoping of fridges, for example) that can get old fast.
But livestreaming apps could be useful for broadcasting more than just fridges and daily experiences; they can show breaking news (as was the case on the scene of a seven-alarm fire in New York's East Village last week), sponsored events, or, to take it a step further, copyrighted material like TV shows and films. It's not an issue the apps have encountered yet—the low-quality video would make extended viewing experiences uncomfortable, and there are plenty more sophisticated ways people finagle illegal access to art—but as the companies behind the apps grow, users could potentially grant other users access to, say, premium channels like HBO, by opening Meerkat or Periscope, pointing the smartphone at the episode of Game of Thrones airing live, and streaming the channel. So what's stopping someone from doing so?
"Practically speaking? Nothing," says Rebecca Tushnet, a copyright law professor at Georgetown University. "There are very limited means to prevent this."
Those means include tracking down users who repeatedly post copyrighted material and shutting down their accounts. But usually when it comes to dealing with copyright infringement, the measures a company takes come after the content has already made it through. YouTube, for example, removes videos that include copyrighted material once it receives a Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint. Then it notifies the user, leaving it up to that person to decide what to do with the removed video. In turn, companies holding the copyright can use tools like Content ID to find videos that include their copyrighted materials. YouTube even has a handy video explaining this entire process with puppets:
Part of this process is thanks to the long history of copyright issues that have cropped up with broadcasting and sharing content. In 1984, the Supreme Court case Universal Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America—popularly known as the Betamax case—nearly made it illegal to tape TV shows. (Justices deemed it legal as long as the taping could be considered fair use.) In 2001, Napster lost a landmark case over copyright infringement, as the court found the company stored the copyrighted MP3 files users were sharing.