What Is SOPA?

Freedom, Politics

Today, thousands of websites as diverse as Wikipedia, LOLCats, and BoingBoing “went dark” to protest H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), proposed legislation meant to put a stop to rampant copyright infringement on the Internet.

While many applaud the intent of the bill, opponents are concerned that broad interpretation could threaten freedom of speech and give the government the ability to censor the World Wide Web.

What’s in the bill?

As originally worded, SOPA would allow the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on who makes the request, the court could order advertisers and others — without a trial or or hearing — to stop doing business with the allegedly infringing website, bar search engines such as Google from linking to the site, and require Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to the site.

In addition, the bill would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Immunity would be offered to ISPs that voluntarily blocked access to infringing sites.

In short, the federal government would have the power to shut down websites or entire domains accused of being associated with copyright infringement, without any sort of trial or even notification.

SOPA supporters 

The bill’s supporters, which include giant companies such as Disney, Sony, the National Football League, and Pfizer, say SOPA is needed to curb piracy of American goods online. It goes farther than current protections, including the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which require ISPs to remove pirated material upon receiving notice from the copyright owner.

Hollywood movie studios, major record labels, clothing companies and pharmaceutical companies all support SOPA. The Motion Picture Association of America linked online piracy to loss of American jobs in a written statement to Congress. Drug companies, giving examples such as Google’s $500 million settlement with the Department of Justice for accepting advertisements from Canadian pharmacies,  say SOPA will protect against websites outside the U.S. selling counterfeit prescription medicines.

Why the Internet opposes SOPA

Those who oppose the bill, including the American Library Association (ALA), the European Parliament, and major internet companies such as Google, Mozilla, and WordPress, warn that SOPA’s language allows for dangerously broad interpretations of online piracy. For instance, the bill permits the U.S. attorney general to take action against sites if “the owner or operator of such Internet site is facilitating the commission” of copyright infringement.

Objectors point out that with this wording, the site does not need to be supporting or promoting intellectual property theft, only facilitating it. Copyright violation, in the strictest sense, is ridiculously easy; this language would hold the site owner responsible if a commenter uploaded a link to a music video in a comment box, for example.

Under such broad definitions, sites such as YouTube, GMail, Facebook, and Twitter could all be in danger. These sites, by enabling user-uploaded content, technically make it possible for someone to infringe upon or circumvent copyright, and could be shut down under SOPA’s provisions.

How SOPA affects you

Say you, as many of us do, have a cute kid who does cute things. You upload a video of your cute kid singing a popular song, figuring that his grandparents might be entertained by a vision of their three-year-old grandson shaking his booty to “I’m Too Sexy.” Grandma sends the link to everyone in her yoga class, and they send it on to their friends, and before your know it, your cute video has 3,000 views. Under SOPA, you could be a felon. Why?

Because the bill expands the definition of criminal copyright infringement to include ten or more copies or “public performances by means of digital transmission” of any copyrighted works during a six month period which have a total retail value of more than $2,500. So if it costs a consumer 99 cents to get a copy of the song, and your video has been viewed 3,000 times, under SOPA you’ve stolen $3,000 from the copyright holder of “I’m Too Sexy” simply by making access to the video possible.

Does SOPA go too far?

Read the bill and judge for yourself.