The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a bill that was introduced to the United States House of Representatives on October 26, 2011 by House Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a bipartisan group of 12 initial co-sponsors. The bill, if made law, would expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking of copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. More specifically, the bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on who makes the request, the court order could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators such as PayPal from doing business with the allegedly infringing website, barring search engines from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. Furthermore the bill would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a crime, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison for 10 such infringements within six months.
The goals of SOPA are most notably protecting intellectual property of content creators and protection against counterfeit drugs. SOPA aims at stopping the flow of revenue to rogue websites that receive profit from illegally distributing copyrighted material, thereby ensuring that “profits from American innovations go to American innovators.” Furthermore, SOPA aims at targeting websites that sell drugs that were either misbranded or counterfeit. Commonly, shipment of prescription drugs from foreign pharmacies to customers in the United States typically violates the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Controlled Substances Act, and SOPA aims at countering these law breaking activities.
However, while the goals of SOPA seem admirable, it is justifiably met with extremely strong opposition. Most noticeably is the impact SOPA would have on websites that host user content. SOPA would make the owners of user-generated websites liable for users’ actions, and websites that would be affected include YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, etc. In fact, the Electronic Freedom Foundation warned that user-generated sites would all be threatened to be shut down if the bill becomes laws. This is because these websites would all become liable if any of their users uploaded copyrighted material. Further concerns arise for websites that could link to copyrighted material, for example if a Twitter user links to copyrighted material. These types of user-generated websites seem unjustly punished by SOPA; even though only a small amount of its users may link to copyrighted material, all its members seem harmed by this piece of legislation.
My personal take on SOPA is that it cannot be passed, especially with the way it is currently worded. It gives copyright holders too much power and creates far more harm than it does good. As of today, if a user-generated site is found to have copyrighted material the copyright holder merely asks the website to take down their copyrighted material. If SOPA passes, the copyright holder could sue not only the individual that uploaded the copyrighted material, but the website for hosting the material, essentially punishing the website for merely providing a service such as video hosting. Luckily, SOPA has been shelved; however, the online community should not take this as a victory. In a few weeks the Senate will vote on Protect IP Act (PIPA) which is essentially a more “reasonable” form of SOPA. The online community must realize that the government is using a “head in the door” method to pass some form of online legislation. We must now focus our effects on PIPA and continue to keep the momentum from SOPA going strong. I believe Glenn Beck said it best that, “It’s a different world we’re going into but it’s all based on the Internet. It’s all based on these connections. If you start limiting the connections, you’re going backwards as a society.”