What side of the battle over SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act should you be on?

As a person who is a proponent for Intellectual Property (IP), you might think I want SOPA and PROTECT IP to pass, but read on. These Acts could change the internet and life as we know it.

To understand the fight over whether SOPA and PROTECT IP Act should pass, let’s look at what it all means.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the current law in the U.S., was enacted in 1998, to modify copyright law written long ago so that loop holes created by the advancement of technology such as the internet could be covered. Under the DMCA, internet service providers are given a safe haven against liability for copyright infringement by their users, but the service providers must comply with a take-down notice from a copyright holder. The take-down provision requires the service provider who has received a request from a copyright holder to remove or block access to material that infringes the copyright.  The website must react as soon as possible, usually within 10 days, to remove the content or to block access to it to be in compliance with the save haven.

This requires the entertainment industry to police the internet for infringing material. Policing by the IP owner is the way other laws affecting IP work. If your trademark or patent are being infringed, you must go after the infringer. But this is costly and time-consuming and the entertainment industry just doesn’t want to do it anymore. But doesn’t the industry already have enough ways to go after infringers?

In addition to the DMCA, the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act (PRO-IP Act) allows the government to get involved and has increased both civil and criminal penalties for trademark, patent and copyright infringement. The Act permits the Department of Justice to conduct civil suits on behalf of copyright holders and allows it to seize and auction off any computer or network hardware used in the act of a copyright crime. This is the law that allowed the Justice Department to go after individuals, such as the 12-year-old girl downloading songs from Napster. Remember the woman who had to pay $222,000 to the Recording Industry Association of America for downloading over 1,000 songs? I’m sure you heard about these cases.

In addition to these US laws, on Saturday October 1, 2011 the United States, signed, along with other countries, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, an accord targeting intellectual property piracy. Since no government can single-handedly eliminate the problem of global counterfeiting and piracy, countries have joined together in this Trade Agreement. Among other things, the accord demands governments make it unlawful to market devices that circumvent copyright, such as devices that copy encrypted DVDs without authorization.

Wouldn’t you think that would be enough for the entertainment industry? Apparently it is not.  It has now lobbied Congress to introduce the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP Act), which was introduced on May 12, 2011. A similar House version of the bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced on October 26, 2011. The PROTECT IP Act is a re-write of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which failed to pass in 2010.

If the entertainment industry is on one side, who is on the other side of this battle? The technology industry, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, is lobbying against the passage of SOPA because the enactment of SOPA would impose drastic changes on online service providers, and would cause some to shut down. For instance, as SOPA is currently written, the YouTube domain could be seized and shut down if a user posts an unauthorized work. But the long-term effects seem to be even more drastic. Leaders in the technology industry claim that SOPA has the potential of changing the internet as we know it, affecting search engines, websites, forums, and blogs, even this one. It has also been labeled as pure censorship. Several members of Congress who are not swayed by the entertainment industry and its contributions have come together in a bi-partisan effort to defeat SOPA.

And while the entertainment industry itself is supporting SOPA, many individual artists are not. These artists understand that piracy is just a symptom of new technology and making the internet more difficult to use is not the solution. The solution should be trying to make it easier for content to be obtained legally. Services like Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, and Grooveshark are exposing us to more artists and doing so in a consumer friendly way, so why not make it easier to do this in a legal way? And should we really shut down a website because a small part of what is posted is copyrighted? Justin Bieber originally posted his recordings of copyrighted songs to YouTube. If this law passes, he would be guilty of breaking the law and could be put in jail. And what about the baby dancing on YouTube with copyrighted songs playing in the background? Indeed, that would be a violation as well. Maybe even you have posted an “infringing” video yourself.

SOPA expands the censorship provisions of the PROTECT IP Act. It threatens not only to censor a small amount of allegedly infringing content, but also non-infringing online content along with it. If SOPA passes, it would allow an online service provider’s entire domain to be seized and shut down for infringing material uploaded by a single user. The responsibility of policing for copyrighted works will shift to the internet service provider. Is this a fair shift in light of the way other intellectual property laws work? I think not.

If this passes, sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook would have to censor everything posted or run the risk of getting shut down. Individuals could get sent to jail for up to 5 years for posting any copyrighted material, even just singing a cover song or playing it in the background. Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market, including the resultant revenue and jobs, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites. Opponents say it is internet censorship, that it will cripple the internet, and will threaten whistle blowing and other free speech. You decide.

How far will all of this go? As far as we let them go with it. What should you do? If you believe that PROTECT IP and SOPA should be stopped, write to your Congressman. To make that easier, you can go to http://fightforthefuture.org/pipa/ and let your Congressman hear from you.

Debby Winters