Does SOPA Protect Artists or Censor the Internet?

Does SOPA Protect Artists or Censor the Internet?

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), currently in debate by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee could usher in a new era of artists' rights ... or a new era of online censorship.

The terms of the legislation are broad. Essentially, it requires a website to be legally responsible for all content hosted under its American-owned domain—which includes all dot-com, dot-net and dot-org domain names. So, even if the owners of a dot-com website lived or operated outside of the U.S., their site would be subject to American law.

The current law governing this area assumes a site’s innocence. SOPA would flip that to assume guilt. So under current law, if a site unknowingly infringes on a copyright by hosting a song, photo, book excerpt or other copyrighted intellectual property, it won’t be prosecuted as long as it takes the copyrighted material down as soon as it learns of the transgression.

Under SOPA, copyright holders may take action against a site illegally hosting their property by going to the advertisers who sponsor the site or services that facilitate payment, like Paypal. Those companies would need to remove their ads within five days or stop service if the offending content is not removed.

All it takes to cut off a site’s funding, and for the authorities to pull down the site, is an accusation of copyright violation.  Sites may contest these actions within the five-day window before being shut down.

Should We Be Worried?

There are two sides to every story, and these are the two sides to this one:

  • Pro-SOPA: SOPA is protecting intellectual property. Organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the American Federation of Musicians support the bill, which proponents say is meant to target only those sites deliberately providing content illegally.
  • Anti-SOPA: SOPA is censoring the internet. Companies such as Facebook and Google—which owns YouTube, a potential hotbed of copyright violations in the form of cover songs—fear that the broad nature of the legislation will change the way they operate. In fact, today is American Censorship Day, meant to raise awareness of the bill’s repercussions.

Ambiguity Sparks Questions

Detractors are worried about how SOPA, if passed, will change the way the internet currently operates. The broad nature and ambiguity of the legislation raises questions …

  • For Artists. It’s good business practice to protect your work, and no one faults a person for pursuing a profit. But in the case of artist/celebrities, is it a better business practice to appeal to the fan base by allowing potentially infringing material—such as covers of their songs—to remain publicly accessible? Or to go after people posting covers of their work on YouTube? If SOPA passes, Justin Bieber could be retroactively prosecuted for copyright violation, having posted covers of other artists' work. As it stands now, he is basically promoting others' work for free. Similarly, without SOPA, smaller-scale artists benefit from any form of publicity, illegal or otherwise.
  • For Sites. If the law applies only to sites registered to the U.S., doesn’t it make sense to just … register it elsewhere? PC World goes so far as to say that SOPA is “a stimulus package for Asia and Europe and their internet economies.”
  • For Companies. If SOPA passes, would it be worth it to host user-generated content? Staying on SOPA’s good side would likely require a team dedicated to monitoring the site’s content and associated copyrights, all the while risking getting shut down and hit with a lawsuit for an oversight. Idealistically, they can fight for free speech. Practically, it’s cheaper to avoid the battle.

But all of the speculation will shortly be just that, because once the debate is finished, SOPA will be one step closer to obscurity—or reality.

For More About Copyrighting and the Internet:

For some websites, it's already too late: music-sharing program Limewire was shut down last year.
On on the other side, the founders of BluePrintCleanse recommend copyrighting your work for legal protection.
And after Forever 21 faced copyright lawsuits, we looked into inspiration vs. copying in the fashion world.

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