Ever since its introduction last year, Lamar Smith’s Stop Online Piracy Act (better known as SOPA) has created quite the stir on the internet, setting the stage for the battle of large media companies who aim to protect their assets and the tech industry who oppose the bill on claims that it overreaches and fails to solve the problem. As many are confused as to the nature of this bill or to why it is significant, let’s take a look at SOPA from both perspectives.
SOPA’s stated intent is to protect copyrighted property from being pirated online. The media industry claims that piracy leads to a loss of profits and comes back to haunt the consumer in the end. Many that pirate media justify their actions with qualms of excessive pricing and the disbelief that their indiscretion could have any affect on a fiscally successful company.
Media, be it music, movies, games, etc will feel the burden in different areas, concurrent with their industry model of fiscal responsibilities. Across all boards, piracy widens the gap between the reach and influence of a product to the profits gained by said product. Companies can have a popular title without seeing the financial compensation to cover their costs of that production. With lower expected returns for their investment, companies are forced to raise the cost of that product to the consumer. The raise in cost allows profit margins to retain original or close to original percentages on a particular title. Going further down the chain, retail outlets cannot compete with pirated pricing, thus selling less of that product, and see a decrease in business which results in them hiring less people (fewer jobs).
It’s hard not to understand why companies want to crack down on piracy, regardless of your stance on it. Among the bill’s top proponents are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and media giants, the Motion Pictures Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). SOPA aims to protect industry products and industry jobs by allowing the government and private companies to shut down websites that hold copyright infringements.
Criticism of SOPA has been heard loud and strong from the tech industry, particularly in New York City where several tech startups have thrived. Among the bill’s top opponents are LinkedIn, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and Reddit. These companies have voiced concerned about 1st Amendment rights and censorship, among others.
What do all these sites have in common and what are they seeing that Congress is not? It requires us to dig into SOPA just a little more. The websites that oppose SOPA are those that are run on user-generated material. Under SOPA, user generated content would become to responsibility of the website itself. Let’s use the example of Pirate Bay. If someone were to post directions on Reddit or Facebook on how to log into Pirate Bay and how to download their favorite movies, Reddit would be accountable for the transgression and held responsible for enabling copyright infringement. The fear is that user generated websites could legally tampered with or worst case scenario, shut down within a few weeks of the bill’s passing.
Sites that rely on user generated content simply cannot exist in their current state under these laws. They are currently not responsible for information uploaded by a user. SOPA changes that. Users fear is that these websites will be replaced with commercialized versions of themselves or be removed/blocked all together.
With millions of pieces of content synchronously being made available, content has become hard to manage in real time. With existing laws in place (Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998), an ISP must remove material from web sites that appear to constitute copyright infringement. This can be requested or flagged by the copyright owner or their representative. Under SOPA, websites could be shut down or blocked by simply being accused of enabling copyright infringement.
The tech industry – specifically those sites running on user generated content have created thousands of jobs in the past few years. Slowing down on innovation is not something the country can afford to do, and not something these young companies want to see happen. They claim Congress will seek to end piracy and hurt the tech industry as collateral damage.
For many, it’s hard to garner support for the RIAA. They’re known for being ruthless in their pursuit of those that illegally download music. SOPA however, is not just about piracy, it’s about property. Including intellectual property.
Aside from tangible products and goods that are protected under SOPA, the bill also addresses the issue of intellectual property. A foreign website selling knock-off purses would be covered under the bill. This is considered intellectual property theft.
This is important for companies, specifically those that pride themselves on providing high quality often high price point goods. Buying bad quality, imposter goods presents a bad image of that company to the buyer, in opposition to the image they have developed and portray and in many cases, in direct opposition to the goods they manufacture. Associating a supposed ‘high end’ brand with bad quality will damage a company’s image, in turn; damage their brand and their profits.
As the United States cannot do anything to shut down a foreign site, the most they can do is block access to it, under the moniker of protecting Americans into not paying for fake goods. This raises all kinds of questions on censorship, government interference and has even drawn the ire of those that claim this violates the principles of a free market.
Amongst the loudest of SOPA opponents, the Reddit community has displayed the true power of the internet and has collectively raised their voices in protest. They’ve managed to raise awareness to the general population, and have made their feeling felt in the pockets of supporting corporations.
Among the top proponents of SOPA was GoDaddy.com. Having faced public backlash for their involvement, they have since backed off. The backlash? A Reddit user called for a national, ‘Change your Provider Day’ in opposition to GoDaddy’s stance. Within 5 days, GoDaddy lost 74,000 domains due to the Reddit-driven campaign.
As GoDaddy hasn’t been getting a break about this lately, let’s give them one and look at why they’ve supported this. The company was being sued by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which produces the Oscars each year) for facilitating trademark infringement by allowing domains to be registered by individuals that used it to promote the Oscars (ie. 2011oscars.com), without the consent of the Academy. If SOPA passes, GoDaddy is alleviated of responsibility and those sites can just be taken down or blocked.
Another major concern with the bill is that it does very little to actually target piracy. Taking a closer look, SOPA only targets http, or the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (one of many internet protocols) and does nothing to target the BitTorrent protocol. This protocol which uses neither http nor DNS accounts for approximately 95% of piracy. Thus, the bill does nothing to actually stop piracy where it thrives and only has a negative impact on the structure of the internet which has prospered in the past two decades under the free exchange of information.
In the game of combating piracy, companies are left to wonder to who to blame. Several tech companies have expressed their desire to see the private sector tackle piracy on their own and resist the idea of government regulation of the internet. The comedian, Louis CK is an example of the private sector taking on this issue. The comedian abstained from the production assistance of a larger corporation and opted to film a comedy special, set up his website, and produce the event by himself.
He promoted the special to his fans and admitted that they could pirate it if they want to, but asked for their support and spend $5 to download the special. The low price countered any claims that it would be too expensive for fans to manage. This honest and genuine request resonated with his fan base and others seeking to support the cause. People forewent on downloading a pirated copy of the event, and opted to pay the $5. All profits went to him and covered his production costs. This social test was a stellar success, and Louis CK made over $1 million dollars in sales off the comedy special.
The question becomes if the private sector can tackle this problem on their own by restructuring their own businesses that have seen financial success in the past, or if a heavy handed government ruling that threatens to ‘break’ the internet is necessary. SOPA draws ire from what it fails to do. Fear of SOPA comes from not what it threatens to take away, but from what is can be used to do. As a law is only as good as its interpretation of those regulating it, SOPA can be used to not only protect the intellectual and tangible property of business owners, but to limit free speech and the free flow of information to and from American citizens.
Like the VCR recorder upon its launch, the mp3 player when introduced, and YouTube even today – the answer of large corporations has always been to stifle innovations that can potentially interfere with their business models and profits by trying to get them banned/blocked. Their latest attempt to censor the internet is no different. Think what the world would be like if it weren’t for those tech innovations. SOPA goes beyond protecting the right of copyright owners and takes a dangerous step into government intervention in the flow of information and freedom of speech guaranteed to American citizens.