Friday, December 16, 2011

SOPA on a Rope?

There has been an immense amount of talk lately regarding a bill currently making its way through US Congress known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA).  SOPA has been fashioned as an effective response to rampant online piracy of copyrighted content by granting the Attorney General rather broad and sweeping powers to attack infringing websites. The law also gives individual rights holders a new procedure complete with remedes they’ve never had access to before.

The bill is a companion to the equally controversial PROTECT IP act, also being debated by congress. These two bills signify a sharp change in the American copyright landscape, specifically as it pertains to the Internet.

In addition to granting the Attorney-General the power to obtain a court order against a site that is either “committing of facilitating online privacy”, he may also order third party payment providers (such as Visa or PayPal) and online ad networks to stop supporting and dealing with the site in question.

photo by mikeleeorg
Furthermore, the Attorney-General may order the de-indexing of allegedly infringing sites from search engines.  Many have likened this rather extreme measure to the Internet censorship protocols enacted by the Chinese government (known coloquially as ‘The Great Firewall”).  While this may be a slightly extreme appraisal, this measure in particular brings up significant free speech issues.

As mentioned above, not only the Attorney-General but regular rights holders have been given powerful enforcement tools.  If a rights holder believes a site is infringing their copyright, they must undertake a two step process: First, they must contact payment providers and ad networks doing business with the site in question.  Upon forwarding them a compliant, they are to cease their service in relation to the website and forward the complaint to the owner of the domain. At this point, the site owner must reply and explain how their activities are not infringing copyright (eg. the material is legally licenced, fair use etc.).  if they do not, the rights holder may apply to a court for a limited injunction on the website.  

SOPA tries to incentivize the voluntary coming forward of ad and payment networks by extending them immunity from liability if they ”squeal” on an instance of copyright piracy or trademark infringement.

Finally, the bill expands the penalties related to certain activities including streaming video and various instances of counterfeiting.

Supporters of the bill tout it as the weapon American rights holders need to effectively police their IP rights. Supporting organizations include the obvious players such as the Recoding Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) but also large commercial entities like Nike, Ford and Pfizer.  SOPA would presumably make it easier for those large entities to enforce their trademark rights, adding to the ICANN Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP).  While the latter only allows rights holders to go after infringing domain names, SOPA would allow them to pursue websites that make use of their trademarks in the actual content of the site itself.

Detractors contend that the bill is an absolute outrage and must be killed immediately. Representatives on both sides of the house have been outspoken critics, among them Rep. Nancy Pelosi and current Republican nominee for presidential candidacy Rep. Ron Paul.  In Rep. Paul’s own words, SOPA will likely result in "an explosion of innovation-killing lawsuits and litigation.”

Some even question the efficacy of the bill.  Sure the Attorney-General may order sites banned form the American web, but the DNS can be manipulated in creative ways to circumvent this roadblock. As was born witness to during this years “Arab Spring”, people can use mirror and proxy servers to get around national quarantines of the Internet.

The advent of these new measures also brings into question the utility of the DMCA’s notice and take-down system.  If SOPA passes, it will create a far stronger mechanism than what the DMCA currently offers thereby rendering those remedies obsolete. Unfortunately, the DMCA notice and take-down represents  significantly more balanced approach to dealing with piracy on the Internet than does the potentially Ex Parte (legal jargon meaning a hearing absent one of the parties) process put in place by SOPA. The latter allows actions to be taken against the infringing site itself if the Attorney-General is unable to locate the owner of the site.

It remains to be seen what type of effect SOPA and PROTECT IP will have in the Internet landcsape in the US.  The question also beckons as to whether any other countries will follow suit with national legislation of their own in the same vein.  Being the worlds largest exporter of Intellectual Property, the United States has a vested interest in seeing IP laws around the world tighten.  Here in Canada, our copyright modernization act (currently making its way through Parliament) seems to already reflect that exported interest.  The last thing Canada needs right now is “SOPA North”.  However, since “Stephen” and “Barack” are such good buddies these days, who knows what could happen?

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