The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)

Since its introduction in the House of Representatives in late October 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R.3261) has been surrounded by controversy.

The intent of the bill is "[t]o promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes."

In other words, the bill is supposed to the stop the following:

  • digital piracy
  • copyright infringement
  • the sale of counterfeit prescription drugs

The SOPA directly benefits the film and music industries, both of which loose a substantial amount of money each year to counterfeiting and theft of copyrighted material.

In essence, the bill

  • gives the Attorney General the power to take action against any "U.S.-directed foreign Internet site."
  • requires Internet providers and search engines, such as Google, to block, shut down, or stop users from accessing sites deemed in violation of SOPA within in 5 days of notification.
  • strongly encourages Internet providers to take action against sites and users who are dedicated to "theft of U.S. property" and/or "endanger public heath" through the sale of counterfeit drugs.
  • allows for the reproduction, distribution, or public performance of any copyrighted material to result in felony charges.

While most people agree that digital theft is wrong, the bill itself is often criticized for its aggressive provisions. 

Under SOPA, as it is, if a copyright holder wanted to sue an amateur artist for posting a cover of a song on YouTube, they could. But for actual jail time to occur, the amateur artist would have had to make X amount of profit from the reproduced song.  It's not just the letter of the law that has people up in arms, it's the long term implications.

In an open letter to Washington, many internet innovators (the founders of Google, Yahoo!, LinkedIN, PayPal, etc.) publically oppose SOPA, stating that the legislation "[gives] the U.S. Government the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran. . ."

U.S. companies and politicians alike are split between those who are for and against SOPA, with both sides making valid arguments. The bill will open again for debate on the House floor when Congress reconvenes in January 2012.

UPDATE:

On January 18, 2012, thousands of sites across the web - including internet giants Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit - protested SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PIPA. For some sites, most notably Wikipedia, this meant blacking out their entire site or having only the features allowed under SOPA to be visible. Google censored its logo and directed users to "Tell Congress: Please don't censor the web!" With Google collecting over 7 million signatures in petition of the bill and massive news coverage, the SOPA protest is considered the most successive online protest to date.  Since the protest, several representatives have withdrawn their support of the bill.

On January 20, 2012, House Judiciary Committee Chairman and chief SOPA sponsor, Representative Lamar Smith, pulled the bill citing "[i]t is clear that [the Judiciary Committee] need[s] to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products." By pulling the bill himself, Smith kept the bill from being tabled indefinitely by the Speaker of the House or vetoed by the president (in the event that the House and the Senate passed the bill).