SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act): A primer

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I’ve been meaning to write this article for a while – certainly before the December 15 meeting but time slipped away. The House Judiciary Committee will pick this up again after the holidays so I figured now would be a good time too – and now I have a little time. I have to say that I usually try to find neutral sources for any primer – it’s been very tough to find anything neutral on SOPA. The people who really care about the topics control the airwaves one way or another. As ReadWriteWeb said…

Big Media (the record labels, movie studios and TV networks) support the bill while Big Tech (search engines, open source platforms, social networks) oppose it.

Here are the facts (thanks to Wikipedia):

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also known as H.R. 3261, is a bill that was introduced in the United States House of Representatives on October 26, 2011, by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a bipartisan group of 12 initial co-sponsors. The bill expands the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Now before the House Judiciary Committee, it builds on the similar PRO-IP Act of 2008 and the corresponding Senate bill, the Protect IP Act.

The House Judiciary Committee held hearings on SOPA on November 16 and December 15, 2011. The Committee is scheduled to continue debate when Congress returns from its winter recess.

The quick take – SOPA wants to find ways to prevent US residents from accessing info (web sites, drugs, media) that infringes on US copyright. Plan A is contact the suspected offender in question. Give them 5 days to remove any offending materials. However, there are times when it’s not easy to contact the person/corporation responsible for the infringement. It’s particularly hard if the person is not in the US and is probably not looking to be found. Plan B (when the person does not comply or can’t be tracked down) is to make it more difficult to be found (and/or get paid) by US companies. So search engines, website hosts, advertisers, payment processors and some website owners (especially those who support online discussion/interaction) will be asked to remove access to the offending material. These accidental abettors are not expected to monitor for copyright materials – but are expected to remove access to copyright materials once notified.

The proponents claim that the US is currently losing revenue and jobs due to copyright infringement and that SOPA will help curb that loss. The opponents claim that SOPA will dampen innovation at a time when innovation (leading to new jobs) is most necessary and will set back the US reputation as a tech leader.

Tech.MN recently posted an article that outlined (among other aspects) the financial pros and cons…

The MPAA suggests “more than $58 billion is lost to the U.S. economy annually due to content theft, including more than 373,000 lost American jobs, $16 million in lost employees earnings, plus $3 billion in badly needed federal, state and local governments’ tax revenue.”

Entrepreneurs and investors have their own reasons for concern. A Booz & Company report released in November a study shows that that 80% of venture capitalists and angel investors interviewed said they would rather invest in a risky, weak economy with the current laws than a strong economy with the proposed law in effect. Over 50 prominent tech angel investors believe “PIPA will ultimately put American innovators and investors at a clear disadvantage in the global economy.”

SOPA (HR3261) is currently making its way through the House. Discussion is expected to continue in the House Judiciary Committee after the winter break. SOPA has a cousin in the Senate (S968) called PIPA (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011). The bills are similar although with PIPA the focus seems to be on the domain name servers although the key terms seems to be “information location tool” which seems as if it could be applied more broadly when desired.

While PIPA did not seem to capture American’s attention as much as SOPA, it did not go unnoticed. Many of the proponents and opponents are the same. One issue raised with PIPA (as well as with SOPA) has been the potential technical concerns. First – there are concerns that obscuring access to materials will make it more difficult to find offending material – but does not get to the root of actually removing material. Also there are concerns that modifications made to DNS (domain name system) will decrease security and stability of the Internet. PIPA is out of committee and is on its way to the full Senate.

I think we will hear more about SOPA over the next few weeks – just search SOPA video if you want to see a huge outpouring of response from a wide range of content providers. I haven’t heard as much about either bill on TV; it will be interesting to see what the coverage is as online coverage ramps up.