Since the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, there has been a battle between corporations and rights groups over how far legislation should go to stop digital piracy, and how effective it would be.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) proposed the Stop Online Piracy Act in October as a counter to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) PROTECT-IP Act, proposed in May, which has stalled. There are already numerous petitions against it floating around the internet.
The purpose of SOPA is “to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes,” according to the bill proposal.
Corporations say the bill is necessary to combat the continuing decrease in revenue caused by digital piracy, while rights groups fear that tampering with the Domain Name System will result in “less stability and less security” of the Internet.
“The bill won’t have any noticeable effect on so-called ‘piracy,’” said Karl Fogel, founder, Executive Director and Chairman of the Board for QuestionCopyright.org, a nonprofit advocacy group. “The bill would do much more to stop every day exercise of civil liberties than it would do to stop unauthorized copying.”
According to a study by the Business Software Association and IDC, reducing piracy in the U.S. by 10% over two years could add over $52 billion to the gross domestic product by 2013, though that revenue could come at the price of hampering technology start-ups from getting off the ground by making them liable for infringing content on their sites.
“The U.S. is the leading producer of creative content. Rampant infringement of digital copyrights hurts workers and businesses in America more than in any other country,” said Daniel Castro, a senior analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
SOPA would give the attorney general power to issue a court order forcing Internet Service Providers to stop customers from reaching offending sites, along with other measures, to halt the flow of funds to the sites.
The oft repeated mantra against SOPA is that it will “break the internet” due to the scope of the bill, which far exceeds that of the DMCA. Many believe this will not have any effect on piracy, as determined pirates would still be able to access the website by other means.
“This is a band-aid/reactive solution,” said Abbe Forman, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Temple University and Associate Editor for International Journal of E-Politics. “Efforts should focus on a more proactive solution that addresses the underlying cause, as well as the relative ease of engaging in digital piracy.”
“Even if one thinks that illegal copying is an infection that has to be cured, which we emphatically don’t agree with, SOPA’s solution is analogous to curing it by removing the patient’s circulatory system,” Fogel said.
Even some corporations are against the bill, specifically technology firms like Google and Yahoo!, which believe SOPA would result in these companies having to police websites for infringing content or be incriminated themselves.
“The concern here has nothing to do with infringement, but how SOPA is ridiculously overbroad, and will create massive problems and liabilities for activities that most people consider perfectly reasonable and legal,” Mike Masnick, said in a blog on Techdirt, the blogging community founded by Masnick’s start-up Floor64.
Still, many companies and their interest groups support the bill because they are losing potential profit due to piracy.
“Both the volume of music acquired illegally without paying for it and the resulting drop in revenues are staggering,” according to the Recording Industry Association of America’s website, where an entire section of the site is dedicated to the issue of piracy. “Digital sales, while on the rise, are not making up the difference.”
Similarly, the Motion Picture Association of America’s home page prominently features information about “rogue” websites’ “devastating impact on America’s creative community and what’s being done to stop them.”
These websites are the primary target of SOPA. The bill is specifically intended to protect against foreign-hosted sites, such as The Pirate Bay, which springs from Sweden and is one of the largest file-sharing sites today with over 5 million registered users.
“I oppose piracy, but I support sharing,” said Jason Rech, a 20-year old student at Stony Brook University. “If there is any difference.”