The Stop Online Piracy Act claims to “promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property,” according to the bill. But as it is written now, some local experts say it could do the exact opposite.
SOPA would expand federal law enforcement’s ability to shut down Web sites and services that host pirated content.
Law enforcement would have the power not only to attack companies that are unabashedly violating copyright law, but also those unknowingly connected through user-generated information, such as a link in a comment of a story.
Once a site is notified of its offense, it would have five days to submit an appeal that “shows that the defendant does not have the technical means to comply without incurring an unreasonable economic burden or that the order is not authorized,” according to the legislation.
If a site does not reply with an adequate appeal, the federal government could cut off the site from search engines, require Internet service providers to block its customers from accessing the site, discontinue affiliate advertising and prevent the site from using payment providers.
Proponents of the bill, many of whom stem from the entertainment industry, argue that the bill is necessary to better enforce copyright laws, especially in regard to foreign Web sites. Opponents say the bill is overreaching and could effectively cripple small businesses.
Although the bill is mainly intended to shut down foreign offenders, it could stifle innovation locally, according Andy Seybold, a mobile computing consultant and founder of Andrew Seybold Inc.
“It was put in place because people in the entertainment industry want to curb all this piracy going on, but the people who wrote the bill broadened it to the point where it is ludicrous,” he said.
Steve Ainsley, president and publisher of Miller-McCune Magazine, agreed.
“It’s intended to go after foreign sites, but the way it’s written it could just as easily be applied to Google and social networking sites and go after them in an onerous way,” he said. “It would be impractical for sites like YouTube and Facebook to review every post to ensure it’s not a violation.”
Although the bill isn’t perfect, something needs to change, according to Jacques Habra, a Santa Barbara entrepreneur and founder of Noospheric and First Click SEO. He said the current Digital Millennium Copyright Act isn’t effective and some anonymous bloggers are virtually impossible to trace.
“If there is a legitimate copyright violation, there needs to be a degree of liability subject to the third party,” Habra said. “As of now, there’s no requirement for them to take anything down.”
The DMCA includes a provision known as the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act that creates a “safe harbor” for Web sites that host content. Copyright owners can submit a notice that asks for the infringing material’s removal but in some cases, the material is not taken down, Habra said.
For instance, a service provider is not liable for monetary, injunctive or other equitable relief if “the material is made available online by a person other than the service provider;” according to section 512 of the DMCA.
“It will give (the government) enough power so seemingly uncontrollable violations on copyright and open-ended defamation come to an end,” he said. “Yes, there will be collateral damage because of that and there will be totally legitimate folks who get knocked down, but if they make adjustments to their business they could get by.”
But rather than letting the government regulate the Internet, opponents of the legislation argue that the Internet is doing a decent job of policing itself.
“Using existing laws and better enforcing them should be the first step,” said Kevin O’Connor, founder of FindTheBest and DoubleClick. “People were scraping from our site and they would steal our data, which wasn’t illegal, but so many people did that we developed a technology solution to shut them down. Technology can police itself.”
Make It Work Inc. founder Eric Greenspan agreed.
“The Internet is what it is because of the lack of regulation,” he said. “Let people choose where and what they buy. Let those who choose wrong take the appropriate action.”
Harry Rabin, a local film and music producer and owner of WAVE Productions and SeaMusic Recording Studio, might be the first to admit that piracy hurts his industry, but he said it can also be a blessing when his material is used in a major production.
“It’s a good idea to stop foreign countries from duplicating all these movies, but the bill is going way beyond that,” he said. “It’s just opening up this massive policed state that will cause instability.”
Opponents also argue that the bill would expose lawful U.S. firms to liability without due process as well as limit free speech. Therefore, Ainsley said, the lawsuit should target rogue sites overseas.
“All provisions should be directed at rogue sites overseas, and that would mitigate a lot of concerns I have that pertain to free speech issues that aren’t the offenders here like Facebook,” said Ainsley, adding that he never thought he would oppose legislation intended to protect copyright laws.
Although Habra said it’s not fair to blacklist an entire site, he argued that people will stop creating and innovating if the status quo persists.
“We spend millions of dollars every year protecting intellectual property because it encourages people like you to invent and create,” Habra said. “Without that protection, people might not be interested when there can’t be recourse.”