SOPA and PIPA: The Cause and the Controversy

Much has been made in the last few weeks about two bills currently being debated in the US House of Representatives. If passed, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) have the potential to put a stop to the illegal online distribution of copyrighted material. However, opponents argue that the vague wording of the bills combined with the broad range of powers they intend to impart upon US government agencies would effectively give them the power to censor the Internet, and thus become a direct violation of the First Amendment.

The Bills

The theory behind the bills is that they are necessary for enforcing copyright laws in the swiftly developing information age, where the world is becoming a smaller place and international boundaries are becoming less significant.

Current legislation does not account for intellectual property offered over various direct download and torrent sites if they are registered and operated in countries other than the US, as this legally makes them a foreign entity. Alternatively, if their servers operate outwith the States, this means the origin of the copyright violations were not within US jurisdiction. Technically, if no infringement took place on US soil, no crime was committed under US law.

The purpose of the bills is to grant powers designed to rectify this technicality and take some steps towards allowing the law to catch up with advancing technology.

The Support

Unsurprisingly, two of the principal supporters of the bills are the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America. Studies have concluded that online file sharing annually costs the music labels and movie studios around $60 billion in lost revenue. Other supporters include a number of music and movie guilds such as Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Songwriters Guild of America, as well as large companies such as Nike, Ford Motor Company, L’Oreal and Viacom.

By giving greater power to those charged with preventing online piracy, it is hoped that the practice will be halted and the income from lost sales returned to the economy.
The Opposition

Much of the bills’ opposition comes from technology and Internet companies such as Facebook, Yahoo!, Google, Wikipedia, reddit and eBay. Individuals opposing the bills include Reid Hoffmann (Executive Vice President of PayPal and Executive Chairman and co-founder of LinkedIn) and Evan Williams (Director and co-founder of Twitter).

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, allows intellectual property owners who feel a website is violating their copyright to submit a request for the offending content’s removal. However, under the provisions of SOPA, a single validated complaint would be grounds for completely blocking a website, as the active monitoring of its content becomes the responsibility of its operators.

Concern is that fear over the swift and merciless use of the new powers will stifle innovation and creativity as people will be required to spend more time scrutinizing every single aspect of their website. This can cause significant issues for online communities or for any part site where aspects of its contents are user-generated (such as its forums).

The Protests

On January 18 2011, a coordinated Internet protest of the bills took place. Over 100,000 websites staged some form of visual protest against the proposed legislation, with Wikipedia and reddit blacking out completely and presenting a modified homepage suggesting such access blockades was precisely what the government would grant itself the power to do at will, and invited visitors to contact their representative and voice their opposition. Other major sites such as WordPress, Mozilla and Flickr changed their home page to declare their own concerns.

As well as such huge internet presences, protestors also included numerous professional webcomic authors, such as xkcd’s Randall Munroe and Questionable Content’s Jeff Jacques, whose popularity – and thus livelihood – was possible due to the unrestricted sharing of their material.

Four days before the blackout took place, the White House blog posted a declaration that “any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity.” Following up, on the eve of the protest a further statement was issued declaring the White House “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.

The Outcome

Following the recent takedown of Megaupload, the passing of the bills may see the end of similar file uploading sites such as RapidShare, which allow people to share vast volumes of data without the physical need for transfer. Also in the crosshairs are torrent sites such as PirateBay that will inevitably contain copyrighted material amongst that distributed by its owners.

At first glance, the bills seem relatively harmless to the average Internet user who does not regularly download whole libraries of music, TV or movies or provide access to sites that allow such activity. But it may be that the advert provider of your favorite webcomic links to a site that used some unauthorized song lyrics in its content. Maybe a TV review site used screenshots from a show recorded and then distributed online. Perhaps a blogger might innocently link to a film site containing news of interest to their readers, where in that site’s forums a user offers a Filesonic link to a misappropriated copy of The Avengers.

Although the creation of SOPA and PIPA may have been done with the best of intentions, it may well be all too soon that their sting is felt by those they were not originally intended to target.
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