Will SOPA Stop Internet Piracy?

Stephen Yagielowicz

LOS ANGELES — Digital media companies, adult operators included, have long howled for something to be done about piracy, but they may not like Congress’ solution.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is intended to protect U.S. companies from having their proprietary wares, including branded hard goods, along with movies, music and various other media, from foreign poachers.

Critics, however, fear that SOPA would punish legitimate website operators while allowing overseas-based intellectual property pirates to operate unfettered across U.S. borders, profiting beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. law.

The Senate’s version of the anti-piracy bill (the PROTECT-IP Act) was approved by the Judiciary Committee in September, but it lacks the DMCA-style notification process that would enable aggrieved parties to pursue the advertising services and payment providers of infringing websites — a process that is enabled in the House version of the proposal.

A formidable mix of interests, some of which might seem at odds, are on different sides of the bill; with copyright stakeholders such as music labels and Hollywood studios, battling against First Amendment and consumer rights’ advocates, as well as the Internet behemoths, such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo! and others — companies that have been running full-page newspaper advertisements in an effort to sway opinions over legislation it considers too intrusive, while being ineffective and creating undue burdens.

“A corporation, a copyright ‘troll,’ or anyone with an axe to grind could send a notice ... without first involving law enforcement or triggering any judicial process,” Google’s policy counsel, Katherine Oyama, informed the House Judiciary Committee, asking that legislators focus on stemming revenue flow to infringing websites, rather than on the overly broad language contained in the current bill.  

The act’s supporters, such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), claim that current laws are not adequate to prevent U.S. rights-holders’ property from the clutches of foreign website operators and that something must be done about the problem.

“It’s a choice between protecting American creativity and jobs or protecting thieves,” the MPAA policy chief Michael O’Leary, told the House committee.

SOPA would empower the U.S. Justice Department to obtain court orders demanding that U.S.-based search engines, such as Google, to actively block domains of infringing sites from its search results — a task that increases overhead while reducing revenues.

A never-ending series of online players is stepping into the fray, including Tumblr.

“Congress is considering two well-intentioned but deeply flawed bills, the PROTECT-IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA),” the company website states. “As written, they would betray more than a decade of U.S. policy and advocacy of Internet freedom by establishing a censorship system using the same domain blacklisting technologies pioneered by China and Iran.”

The Chinese connection also appears in criticisms that the act is anti-capitalist, with a respected investment firm releasing a survey that finds investors will shun new funding for Internet startups if laws are passed allowing sites to be sued over user-posted content — while China is also reportedly the source of most counterfeit goods sold over the web.

“As long as there is money to be made pushing pirated and counterfeit products, tech-savvy criminals around the world will find ways to sell these products online,” Oyama added. “Ordering ISPs and search engines to ‘disappear’ websites will not change this fundamental reality.”

For adult IP owners, careful consideration of the act’s text may be required before deciding on which side of this extremely complicated issue they fall. One thing is for certain and that is when there is so much controversy from disparate quarters regarding a single piece of legislation, it deserves a closer look.

“DNS filtering will no doubt reduce piracy,” Techland’s Jerry Brito wrote. “But what we have to ask ourselves is, at what cost?”

The cost, said Brito, includes allowing the U.S. government to implement blacklists of forbidden information.

“The result could be a virtually broken Internet where some sites exist for half the world and not for the other. The alternative is to leave the DNS alone and focus (as these bills also do) on going after the cash flow of rogue websites,” Brito says. “As frustrating as it must be for the content owners who are getting ripped off, there are some cures worse than the disease.”