Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Senior Director of Academic Computing and User Services and Deputy Chief Information Officer for University Information Technology

Use a Web Link, Go to Jail

The U.S. Congress can't seem to get much done these days. Funding the U.S. government, extending middle class tax breaks, and extending unemployment insurance have all recently been subject to deadlock and partisan bickering. Yet, a recently introduced bill in the House of Representatives, seems to have bipartisan support. It is the "Stop Online Piracy Act" also known as SOPA or H.R. 3261. The bill would allow the U.S. Justice department as well as copyright holders to obtain court orders to inhibit or shut down websites accused enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material would become a crime under SOPA.

Well, you say, that's just the house going off half cocked as they are bound to do every once in a while. The more even keeled Senate would never pass anything so radical. Except, they have the "Protect IP Act" or PIPA which has similar goals and penalties as SOPA. That bill was already passed out of committee, but has had a hold placed on it by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Thank goodness at least for those even keeled Democrats, right? Well, thank Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont for introducing PIPA.

Rogue Web Sites?

Why SOPA? According to the the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "Rogue Web sites that steal America's innovative and creative products attract more than 53 billion visits a year and threaten more than 19 million American jobs." Translate that to, "we want to squeeze every penny out of commercially produced media content so that there still will be jobs sweeping up movie theaters and delivering newspapers." If you think that's an exaggeration, just recall the lawsuits filed by the RIAA against grandmothers living and dead.

So, you only have to worry about SOPA if you're running a rogue web site, right? According to CNET, SOPA "could require Internet providers to monitor customers' traffic and block the addresses of Web sites suspected of copyright infringement." It appears you are guilty until proven innocent under SOPA, or possibly just guilty, regardless.

OK, you say. You'd have had to steal millions of dollars of online content for the U.S. Government to go after you, right? British student Richard O'Dwyer would beg to differ. A British court recently ruled that he could be extradited to the U.S. to face charges of criminal copyright infringement. O'Dwyer, a 23 year old computer science student, reportedly earned more than $230,000 of advertising revenue running a website that provided links to unauthorized copies of copyrighted television shows. None of the content was directly available on Mr. O'Dwyer's web site. But O'Dwyer was deemed to have been intimately involved in deciding what links would appear on his site.

SOPA would be sure to deal with rogue website's like O'Dwyer's, but perhaps it would shut down YouTube as well. All it would take would be for one disgruntled copyright holder to get a court order based on a video clip posted by any number of people who found an old TV show or movie clip funny or entertaining and who wanted to share it with the world. Sorry YouTube. And how about Google? Just search for any number of titles that could be copyrighted content. If you find any unauthorized content, regardless of where it resides on the world-wide Internet, Google's going down (literally.)

Reinvent business?

SOPA and PIPA potentially could dramatically change the Internet as we know it. Once again this free marketplace of information and ideas is under threat from the forces that seek to protect a narrow economic interest by exerting a heavy-handed control. Copyright infringement is bad, but copyright is supposed to be a balance between the limited protection of intellectual property and the opportunity for fair use of that property to promote the exchange or advancement of ideas. The best way to prevent copyright abuse is to support fair use and to make it easy for people to respect copyright. Apple proved with iTunes that people are very willing to pay for downloading music files when the access is easy and the price is fair. Rather than reinventing the Internet, perhaps copyright holders should reinvent their business models instead of using the U.S. Congress to help them cling to obsolete practices they used in the "good old days" when they could control all of the distribution media.

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Editor's Note: News at press time indicates that SOPA may be on hold as a result of recent public reactions to the bill.  For more information, see this article Controversial online piracy bill shelved until 'consensus' is found. In the meantime, Wikipedia and several other high-profile websites are planning a "blackout" on Wednesday, January 18, in protest of the proposed legislation.