A bill that makes unauthorized Web streaming of copyrighted content a felony has sparked fears that artists like Justin Bieber or others who use YouTube could spend up to five years in jail.

Some fear bill S.978 could land Justin Bieber in jail. (Image via FreeBieber.org )

But could the controversial bill really affect any person who streamed or posted videos of copyrighted content to sites like YouTube?

Many advocates for Internet freedom say S.978’s open-ended language means it could.

Progressive site DemandProgress.org thinks that YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Google+, iPhone, Android, AmazonCloud, Pandora, Grooveshark, and e-mail accounts could all be at risk under the new bill.

More than 500,000 people have signed a petition to oppose the bill on the Demand Progress site, which writes that “all of this is being driven by a few major corporations who are trying to protect their private profits.”

The bill is supported by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Directors Guild of America, Motion Picture Association of America, and Recording Industry Association of America, among more than 40 others.

Fight for the Future, an organization for freedom in technology, says that because copyright law is so expansive, “it applies to lots of completely harmless and common things: like singing a song, dancing to background music, or posting a video of a kids’ school play.”

To make their point, Fight for the Future launched a site today called FreeBieber.Org. The organization points out that Bieber, who got famous by posting videos of himself singing unauthorized covers of well-known R&B songs to YouTube, could go to jail under the new bill.

But Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), who introduced the bill, say it would never affect artists like Bieber, or a mother who posted a harmless video of her daughter’s dance concert online.

They say the bill is only intended to target Web sites or people who profit from illegally streaming copyrighted material, and that those who “stream videos without intending to profit” will not be subject to prosecution.

Many copyright experts agree with the senators, saying that fears over the bill are exaggerated.

At Copyhype, a blog devoted to copyright issues, IP attorney Terry Hart  argues that “someone who uploads a video to YouTube is not performing the video — YouTube is,” meaning a person cannot be prosecuted under S.978 any more than they could have been in the past.

“In short, the proposed legislation changes no law that would [affect] someone uploading a video to YouTube,” Hart writes. “Justin Bieber is not going to jail.”