Daily users of the Internet likely noticed that some of their favorite sites engaged in a protest of two bills currently pending in Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act ("SOPA") and the PROTECT IP Act of 2011 ("PIPA"). Some sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, and N4G replaced their normal content with a placeholder page decrying both bills, while others like Game Rant and Screen Rant, posted protest banners in addition to their normal content. Google asked its users to sign an anti-SOPA petition and 4.5 million people obliged over the course of one day. Why the outcry over a potential law that will curb internet piracy?
For those who are unaware, SOPA and PIPA were written to help content creators protect their works. Both the film and music industries in particular have claimed heavy losses due to the rampant piracy that takes place on the Internet. Unsurprisingly, the bills are supported by major media entities, including the Entertainment Software Association which represents most major gaming companies.
The purpose of the bills is to regulate access to pirated content that is hosted overseas but targeted toward users in the United States. At first blush, SOPA/PIPA would appear to be noble attempts to prevent domestic companies from losing money due the illegal activities of foreign entities.
However, critics claim that the current form of both bills contain controversial and vague language that could allow application of the enforcement provisions to domestic websites. Frankly, both SOPA and PIPA (read the full bills here and here) are poorly worded as currently constructed, giving even lawyers pause as to their meaning and whether the bills would have the intended effect. This has set off alarm bells for site owners, since under both bills, copyright owners could file a complaint with the U.S. Attorney General against an infringing site for just one page of infringement. The federal government could then obtain a court order to block U.S. access to the offending site and force search engine giants like Google to remove the sites from their search results.
Additionally, copyright owners could effectively cutoff revenue to an alleged violator by issuing a notice to the site's advertisers, who would then be required to cease providing service to the offending site within five days. The accused site may send a counter-notice to the advertisers explaining its position, but neither bill requires the advertiser to restore service once this is done. Thus, merely the allegation of infringement may harm a website's business without adjudication by a court.
Since a site's lack of knowledge that it is hosting pirated material is not a defense under the proposed bills, sites would be required to actively police their content or no longer permit users to contribute content. For websites that rely upon user-generated content, such as Wikipedia, YouTube, or Facebook, this would be a huge and expensive burden would likely damage their business model.
Because of the public backlash, the authors of SOPA and PIPA have agreed to remove the draconian measure of blacklisting sites through DNS blocking. Even so, websites would still be exposed to huge fines and a potential loss of advertising revenue for any alleged copyright infringement, resulting in a chilling effect on the free speech rights of users since content providers will be fearful of copyrighted material being posted without its knowledge. In effect, many of the websites that you currently enjoy may be forced to terminate operations or discontinue user features such as forums or comment sections.
So was the Internet protest successful? In the short term, it certainly appears so. Just today, five U.S. Senators have withdrawn their support for PIPA, including the co-sponsor of the bill, Marco Rubio of Florida. In the House, several Congressmen have also changed their positions on SOPA, stating that the bill needs more work before a vote is taken. The first real test, however, will come on January 24th, which is the date that PIPA is set for a vote in the Senate. Even if PIPA were to pass through Congress, President Obama has vowed to veto the bill.
If neither bill is signed into law, the reality is that a modified version of SOPA/PIPA is likely to pass Congress in the future because internet piracy is a major concern of Hollywood. Since many lawmakers receive large donations from the entertainment sector, this issue will not go away any time soon. Nonetheless, the Internet blackout may have caused enough controversy to delay any further action until after the next Congressional election.
How do you feel about SOPA and PIPA? Does the United States need an anti-piracy law to protect its content creators?
[UPDATE #1 - January 20th]
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced that the scheduled January 24th vote on PIPA will be postponed. His office released the following press release:
"In light of recent events, I have decided to postpone Tuesday's vote on the PROTECT I.P. Act. There is no reason that the legitimate issues raised by many about this bill cannot be resolved. Counterfeiting and piracy cost the American economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs each year, with the movie industry alone supporting over 2.2 million jobs. We must take action to stop these illegal practices. We live in a country where people rightfully expect to be fairly compensated for a day's work, whether that person is a miner in the high desert of Nevada, an independent band in New York City, or a union worker on the back lots of a California movie studio.
I admire the work that Chairman Leahy has put into this bill. I encourage him to continue engaging with all stakeholders to forge a balance between protecting Americans' intellectual property, and maintaining openness and innovation on the internet. We made good progress through the discussions we've held in recent days, and I am optimistic that we can reach a compromise in the coming weeks."
While this is definitely a victory in the short term for those participating in the Internet blackout on January 18th, it is clear that Senator Reid and the rest of the Congress will continue to pursue an anti-piracy bill. If and when a modified or new bill is introduced, Game Rant will be sure to bring you the details.
[UPDATE #2 - January 20th]
SOPA is dead. The "SOPA is dead" tagline is proudly trending on Twitter as House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith announced that he's pulled the bill that united the internet community.
“I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy. It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products.
“The problem of online piracy is too big to ignore. American intellectual property industries provide 19 million high-paying jobs and account for more than 60 percent of U.S. exports. The theft of America’s intellectual property costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually and results in the loss of thousands of American jobs. Congress cannot stand by and do nothing while American innovators and job creators are under attack.
“The online theft of American intellectual property is no different than the theft of products from a store. It is illegal and the law should be enforced both in the store and online.
“The Committee will continue work with copyright owners, Internet companies, financial institutions to develop proposals that combat online piracy and protect America’s intellectual property. We welcome input from all organizations and individuals who have an honest difference of opinion about how best to address this widespread problem. The Committee remains committed to finding a solution to the problem of online piracy that protects American intellectual property and innovation.”
As a result, the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) - the folks who organize E3 every year - have changed their outlook on the matter, announcing that they no longer support the bill. Keep in mind, this was after the SOPA bill was shelved and after they spent $190,000 in lobbying for SOPA. Convenient timing.
"From the beginning, ESA has been committed to the passage of balanced legislation to address the illegal theft of intellectual property found on foreign rogue sites. Although the need to address this pervasive threat to our industry's creative investment remains, concerns have been expressed about unintended consequences stemming from the current legislative proposals. Accordingly, we call upon Congress, the Obama Administration, and stakeholders to refocus their energies on producing a solution that effectively balances both creative and technology interests. As an industry of innovators and creators, we understand the importance of both technological innovation and content protection and are committed to working with all parties to encourage a balanced solution."