The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is House Bill number 3261 and is unquestionably one of the most misguided and potentially dangerous pieces of internet legislation ever proposed by the US Congress. SOPA’s aims are to force ISPs, search engines, payment processors and ad networks to block access to any website deemed by any judge to be a “rogue.” Unfortunately, many judges have shown an appalling ignorance of the most basic functions of the internet. If Supreme Court Justice John Roberts can ask “what is the difference between email and a pager?” then the legislation is up for overwhelming misinterpretation and heavy-handed enforcement by a gaggle of lower judges in any given district in America. The leading hardware and software corporations have finally taken a stand against SOPA, but their prolonged dawdling may have rendered their opposition futile.
The Business Software Alliance (BSA), which counts among its heavyweight members companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel and Adobe, recently issued a statement opposing SOPA in its current form, stating that it “needs work” before it should be implemented as the law of the land. Warning that the legislation “as it now stands… could sweep in more than just truly egregious actors,” the BSA went on to state that “the bill would have to balance key innovation, privacy and security considerations with the need to thwart the threat rogue websites pose,” as current “SOPA provisions might have unintended consequences.” The tone adopted by the BSA was in stark contrast to statements of just a week earlier when the Alliance offered support to the Act.
The Current Copyright-Violating Web Is Untenable
The vast majority of sober and level-headed internet observers have to admit that the current situation where movies, TV shows, music albums and other copyrighted content becomes freely available within nanoseconds of their release is untenable. Entertainment content is produced at high expense with an expectation that the venture will produce a profit, and it is simply not feasible to spend $100 million-plus on a media production just to give it away for free. However, the BSA is finally realizing that the impact of SOPA is too draconian to contemplate.
Croon Elvis & Commit a Felony
Let’s assume in a SOPA universe that your garage band creates a YouTube video where you’re playing an Elvis, Beatles or Lady Gaga tune. Congratulations, you have just committed a felony. We’re not discussing a slap-on-the-hand simple fine situation but a crime comparable to arson, robbery, or burglary. This is not for playing a copyrighted video clip from the original artist, but just strumming out their chords on your $50 guitar while crooning the lyrics! The liability is not limited to criminal charges against your band alone, as SOPA levies responsibility against the carrier of the copyright-infringing content, so YouTube can legitimately be blocked from all US access. Given that if all the copyright infringing videos on YouTube were removed there might be nothing left there but “awwww” videos of kittens, puppies and babies, it is clear that the internet industry needs to take a strong stance against this clear and present danger.
Impossible Copyright Determinations
SOPA’s limits are unknown and at least at this juncture, effectively unknowable. Is the use of a trademark word a SOPA violation? Would posting the statement “Let every Champion Pledge at this Time to be United in Joy and Cheer” be seen as violating six trademarks? Would every website that allows public posting be responsible for policing every element to ensure copyright adherence prior to making the content public? Although it’s obvious that the post of a full rip of the Puss In Boots movie is a copyright violation, how can anyone determine whether the soft music playing in the background of a video clip is under the jurisdiction of the RIAA or a tune the video creator composed and played?
SOPA attempts to perform microsurgery with a sledgehammer, and the BSA’s previous support was nothing short of baffling. It seems that the internet industry has finally woken up to the threat posed by this Act… but it might be too little too late.