What is SOPA?

Can the government create an internet blacklist? A controversial bill to punish online piracy pits media companies against search engines and free speech advocates. Get a legal expert’s take on the arguments for and against SOPA.

Adam Freedman
February 10, 2012

Today’s topic: The Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA

And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

What Caused the Wikipedia Blackout?

If you had to look up something – anything – on January 18, 2012, you might have been out of luck. On that day, the English language version of Wikipedia had basically shut itself down. Instead of the usual collection of articles, there was a simple message saying “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” On the same day, an estimated 7,000 other internet sites also went dark. The point of this online blackout was to protest a controversial piece of legislation currently moving through the US Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. In today’s article, I’ll explain the basics of SOPA, and why it’s so controversial.

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What is SOPA (and PIPA)?

SOPA is the bill pending before the US House of Representatives, it was introduced on October 26, 2011 by Congressman Lamar Smith and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors. There is a Senate version of the same legislation, but it goes by the name of the Protect IP Act, or PIPA.

Although SOPA and PIPA sound like harmless cartoon characters, they deal with a very treacherous issue – the theft of intellectual property online. Intellectual property, of course, refers to things like music, paintings, stories, articles and yes, even podcasts. Copyright law allows the creators of intellectual property to have exclusive rights to profit from their creations for a particular period of time – and that comes with the right to sue people who infringe their copyrights.

Online Infringers Are Hard to Catch

In the old days, it was relatively easy to catch copyright infringers: for example, the guy selling bootleg records out of the back of his car. But these days, it won’t be a bootleg record, but rather, a bootleg audio or video file, and the guy responsible for putting it online might be in a foreign country, where US copyright law doesn’t reach. Imagine, some guy in China might be making a killing on unauthorized copies of Legal Lad, and I’m not getting a penny!

Supporters of SOPA say that current US law doesn’t go far enough to protect intellectual property. Under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), copyright owners who think that a website is hosting infringing content have to request that the site owner remove the content within a certain amount of time, before bringing any sort of legal action. SOPA would essentially reverse the current state of the law, putting the responsibility on the site owners to police their own sites in order to avoid legal action. 

How SOPA Works

As originally introduced, SOPA would allow the US Department of Justice to seek a court order against foreign websites that are purposely enabling copyright infringement. Such an order could require Internet Service Providers to block access to infringing sites. Individual copyright holders would also be able to bring lawsuits under SOPA. And even if the infringing website is beyond the jurisdiction of US courts, SOPA allows courts to order online advertising services and payment facilitators (like Paypal) from doing business with infringing sites, and could order search engines from linking to such sites. In effect, a court order under SOPA could starve a website of traffic and revenue.   The bill also includes penalties for streaming video and for selling counterfeit drugs, military materials, or consumer goods.

The Pros and Cons of SOPA

The battle lines over SOPA are fairly clear. On one side, there are media companies and industry groups like the Motion Picture Association; that is, the creators of intellectual property. They tend to support SOPA because they see it as a valuable tool to protect the entertainment industry from the kind of piracy that has done so much damage to the music business.

On the other side are internet search engines like Google and Yahoo, and a wide variety of websites that host, or link to, third party content – not just Wikipedia, but also social media sites like Facebook and You Tube. These sites fear the impact of potential legal action under SOPA, since some critics charge that a simple action like posting a video to YouTube could result in a SOPA violation. Congressman Smith, the bill’s sponsor, however, has argued that sites like YouTube will not run afoul of SOPA because the legislation only targets sites that are specifically dedicated to copyright infringement.

SOPA has also attracted criticism from law professors and First Amendment advocates, who argue that the legislation threatens free speech. According to this argument, SOPA will basically force websites to censor themselves, particularly by eliminating or restricting user-generated content, since such content might include infringing materials. Supporters of the bill respond that freedom of speech does not protect copyright infringement, so that websites that host legitimate content have nothing to fear.  We’ll see how this battle plays out over the coming months; until then, keep checking in with Legal Lad and, please, accept no pirated substitutes!

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