How SOPA Can Make the Internet Better (And Why It Won’t)
What are SOPA and PIPA?
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are bills currently working their way through the House of Representatives and Senate, respectively, which would require certain American companies to block access to, stop payments to, and stop running advertisements for websites accused of copyright violations and counterfeiting. These bills have received a lot of media attention due to the major players in each corner and the potential compromise of Internet security.
What are the actual violations that make a site subject to SOPA action?
The U.S. Codes listed in this bill include:
- trafficking in counterfeit labels, illicit labels, or counterfeit documentation or packaging (U.S. Code 2318)
- criminal infringement of a copyright (U.S. Code 2319)
- unauthorized fixation of and trafficking in sound recordings and music videos of live musical performances (U.S. Code 2319A)
- unauthorized recording of motion pictures in a motion picture exhibition facility (U.S. Code 2319B)
- trafficking in counterfeit goods or services (U.S. Code 2320)
If a foreign-based website makes fake things, sells fake things, or provides copies of or free access to copyrighted material, SOPA will scrub out the site. However, the wording is vague and refers to “U.S.-directed sites,” which may make U.S. based sites vulnerable to the same legal action.
What happens when a site is accused of violating those codes?
After the Attorney General sends a court order detailing the alleged violation and intention to proceed with the domain host and owner of the accused site, the following entities have to take “technically feasible and reasonable measures, as expeditiously as possible, but in any case within 5 days after being served with a copy of the order” to block access to, stop payments to, and stop running advertising to the accused website:
- Internet service providers (e.g., Comcast, AT&T)
- domain hosts (e.g., GoDaddy, Namecheap)
- search engines (e.g., Google, Bing)
- payment network providers (e.g., PayPal)
- advertising services (e.g., AdSense)
Why is it so important to protect intellectual property?
Digital files are infinitely duplicable, and the relative anonymity on the Internet makes it easy for users to get free access to copyrighted intellectual property without invoking the guilt of stealing a physical product. Unlike pocketing a CD, downloading an .mp3 file does not force a manufacturer or retailer to absorb the cost of a missing disk, and it seems less like stealing if you “weren’t going to buy it anyway.”
- Investments in production + existing capital = financial resources
- Creativity + financial resources = new product
When the existing capital is reduced (lower revenue from previous sales as a result of the item being free through online piracy), the overall resources to manufacture, advertise, and generate additional revenue for future products are reduced. Creativity is restricted, because the revenue does not support the production process.
While there are arguments that reducing the cost of these digital files or removing the DRM restrictions will reduce overall piracy, the fact is that the Internet and other technological advances have created a post-scarcity society which is going to require a huge paradigm shift in the way our economic system works.
But that’s another post for another day.
Sure, creators and investors get more cash, but how could SOPA make the Internet better?
Copyright infringement goes beyond stealing movies and music. Many internet-based companies – Quality Logo Products included – succeed or fail based on search engine ranking. If customers can’t find you, you’re dead. Among other factors, one thing that can boost a site’s ranking on search results is having original written content matching or relevant to the searched phrase.
For example, Quality Logo Products ranks pretty high when you search “personalized stress balls” or “custom stress relievers,” because we provide valuable and relevant content to users searching these phrases. Quality Logo Products probably ranks pretty low when you search for “banana pancakes.” It’s just not our thing.
In our current SOPA-less internet, online companies who want higher ranking for stress ball keywords have simply copied our content and posted it on their own sites as their own. And it works.
Need a real world example? This summer, we found a website that used over 900 of our product descriptions – some of them still with our company name within the text – and we continue to find our blog posts copied in their entirety on other sites, uncredited, on a weekly basis.
As far as search engines are concerned, the content is still relatively rare, which boosts the low-ranking skeezy site’s ranking without that company having to spend resources (i.e., pay writers) to generate the content. Meanwhile, QLP’s ranking goes down because the search engine has found that same text elsewhere on the Internet; we no longer have the same high percentage of unique content.
SOPA would allow for a court order to “expeditiously” stop all U.S. access (which makes up most but not all of our sales) to the rip-off sites. Those who’ve stolen the material will not appear in U.S. search engine results and U.S. users who type in the direct address will be unable to access it. To U.S. users, the offending website will have been effectively erased, and keyword searches will direct users back to our site.
Thieves get punished, creators get rewarded, and customers are directed to trustworthy sites. Why is everyone complaining?
SOPA violates our judicial procedure.
Rebecca McKinnon at the New York Times reports that in order to avoid legal action, “The burden would be on the Web site operator to prove that the site was not being used for copyright infringement.” Remember the whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing we like having here in the U.S.? The burden of proof is placed on the defendant here, which is not only in violation of our judicial procedures but also a straight up logical fallacy.
Corporate sabotage just got that much easier.
Also, the ability for copyright holders to effectively create a blacklist of sites and immediately block Americans’ access to them makes corporate sabotage easier than ever. Got a foreign competitor infringing on your business? Simply make a user account for that site, post some copyright infringing material, and report them.
Because action is taken within days of a website being notified that it’s been accused of violating SOPA, the results of corporate sabotage are often immediate. Most businesses short of a YouTube or a Facebook won’t have the legal resources to take action in the brief window between notification and shutdown. Even if the investigation reveals that there was a deliberate effort from an outside party to pull down the website through malicious means, there is nothing in the bill regarding the reinstatement of falsely accused sites, and the business lost between the court order date and reinstatement could be financially devastating.
Website owners are responsible for users’ actions and therefore must spend resources on monitoring user activity, discouraging start-ups.
The New York Times goes on to report that SOPA allows: “private companies to sue service providers for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes on copyright — a sharp change from current law, which protects the service providers from civil liability if they remove the problematic content immediately upon notification.” This threatens the safe harbor protection clause laid out in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) from 1998, which allows service providers to avoid legal action as long as they follow specific guidelines including taking down the offending material and terminating the user that posted it.
If the previous examples were a little too tech-heavy, here’s an offline equivalent.
- A person goes into a mall.
- That person stands on a table in the food court and sings Born This Way.
- The mall is closed down, and the music studio can sue the mall for copyright infringement.
In order to avoid legal action, the mall would have to have security at every entrance searching everyone for potential copyright-infringing materials. They would also need to have guards within the food court that would be able to anticipate a patron spontaneously bursting into song. All conversations within the mall would have to be monitored to make sure no one was singing privately to another shopper.
Nerds have already rendered SOPA obsolete.
No matter how many nerds (and I use that term affectionately) are working for the government to block sites, there will be exponentially more civilian nerds working around the government nerds’ obstacles. Whether it’s out of a strongly-held belief in net neutrality or a stick-it-to-The-Man defiance, those most highly involved in online piracy – the ones SOPA is trying to stop – will be the best-equipped to access the sites accused of facilitating piracy.
Also, the technology already exists to bypass it by rerouting users to foreign DNS servers. The bill hasn’t even passed, and there’s already a simple browser plug-in that renders it useless.
Oh, man, that’s pretty ridiculous.
I know, right?
Are you making this up? Let me read the actual bills.
I haven’t intentionally made anything up, but feel free to correct any misinterpretations or incorrect information in the comments below (with citations, of course), and I will correct the original post as soon as I can. Here are links to the bills themselves:
Do you think SOPA will be passed? If so, is it the end of the Internet as so many opponents claim, or is it the cure to online piracy? If not, what do you think the next anti-piracy legislation will look like? Sound off in the comments below!
Until next time, keep expanding your brand!
An old ‘G’ that’s been working for QLP since it was in Bret’s basement – Jana has been writing since she made up a story about a Jana-Tiger that liked rocky road ice cream and got straight A’s. She enjoys writing about marketing and pop culture, posting a ‘Die Hard’ article as often as she’s allowed. She is inspired by the articles at Cracked and frequently wears a Snuggie in the office. You can also connect with Jana on Google+.