Waiter! There’s A Fly In My SOPA

Most people believe that intellectual property is an arcane subject, relevant only to stodgy lawyers and judges. Apart from the occasional public controversies around Napster in 2001 and the scandal over the Mike Tyson tattoo in the Hangover II movie, IP is a field that mostly stays out of the public spotlight.

That changed on January 18, 2012. On Wednesday, many of the country’s most popular Internet companies—including Wikipedia, BoingBoing, Mozilla, WordPress, TwitPic—blacked out their service in protest of two pieces of legislation in the U.S. Congress. Other major sites, like Google and Craigslist, kept their services running but displayed prominent information about their opposition to the legislation. Still others took out a full-page ad in The New York Times warning that the legislation could “break the Internet.”

Suddenly, everyone was talking about IP.

What exactly were these companies protesting, and why? Very briefly, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), originating from the House of Representatives and the Senate respectively, attempt to curtail Internet piracy and copyright infringement. The proposed bills would give the Justice Department the power to go after foreign websites willfully committing or facilitating intellectual property theft. But more controversially, the government would also be able to force U.S.-based companies, like search engines, credit card companies and advertisers, to cut off ties with those sites.

The bills were largely the result of a $94 million lobbying effort by the content industry, including actors such as the Motion Picture Association of America and major television networks. These content producers fear that Internet users are able to stream or download pirated content for free online through overseas websites, costing them millions of dollars per year.

The legal issues on both sides are complex, but in short: Opponents argue that there are already strong laws protecting copyrighted content, including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). But while the DMCA focuses on removing specific pirated content from websites, SOPA and PIPA instead target the site itself that is hosting the content. And while the proposed legislation mostly targets piracy sites abroad, domestic companies could still be held liable for even linking to those sites or their content.

Many scholars and Internet entrepreneurs fear that the legislation is overly broad, and could result in the shutdown of legitimate websites. Newer companies in particular could quickly become burdened with legal fees and forced out of business. While link-based sites like Reddit would not have a legal duty to monitor their sites all the time, “you might have your pants sued off of you if you don’t,” noted Jayme White, staff director for the Senate Finance Subcommittee on international trade.

The past week has seen an enormous tide of public opinion crashing against the proposed bills. Over 4.5 million people signed Google’s anti-SOPA/PIPA petition, and over 162 million people saw Wikipedia’s protest page. An additional eight million used Wikipedia to look up their elected representatives contact information. The issue has oddly crossed traditional party lines. All four Republican candidates came out against the bills during the CNN debate in South Carolina on January 19.

After this onslaught of attacks, SOPA and PIPA are likely to be defeated—at least in their current forms. Many House representatives have switched their positions, and on January 20, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called off the scheduled January 24 vote on the legislation (ironically announcing that news on Twitter). But with millions of dollars and high profile lobbyists, including former Senator Chris Dodd, backing the legislation, the issue seems destine to return shortly. But for the moment, Wikipedia lovers can rest easy.

Brian Farkas