What's really astonishing about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is the intense feeling of betrayal among the public, astonished that the companies they like and support would support a piece of legislation like this one.
Calls for boycotts have sprung up around the web, with SOPA's opponents claiming everything from censorship to the death of free speech. For their part, companies and politicians supporting the bill claim it's only meant to fight trafficking in copyrighted goods and counterfeits, expanding the powers of the U.S. Department of Justice to enforce the new rules.
The bill is of interest to Canada because there's a good chance that our own approach to enforcing copyright, if we ever get around to it, will be similar. And we'll be affected no matter what happens because so much content and technology comes from the U.S., and because one day we'll also be part of the global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.
The real question is, "what's taken so long?" It's been over a decade since the rise of Napster for all the industries most impacted by file sharing through P2P and torrent sites to finally get to the point where SOPA is being reviewed by government.
What is SOPA?
The short answer is that it's many things, some of which do seem as ominous as the opponents suggest.
For example, SOPA would make it a crime — not a legally actionable offence, but an actual crime with actual possible jail time — to stream copyrighted content. It would allow the Department of Justice to shut down websites for trafficking in intellectual property and counterfeit goods — like every P2P and torrent site out there. The wording is vague, but it could also technically apply to posts on Facebook or Google+ or YouTube if they violate the terms of the copyright.
If someone requests a court order against a website or company, the government could bar online advertising agencies or payment companies like PayPal doing business with them. They could ban those sites on search engines. They could require Internet Service Providers to block access.
It's unclear how much support SOPA will have in its current state. Microsoft was originally in favour of the act, but is now opposed. Also opposed are Facebook, Google and Amazon, concerned by the burden that SOPA would place on them to police all of the user-generated content in their servers, as well as the potential that their revenues be cut by through SOPA's enforcement measures.
With such a far reach, many critics say SOPA goes too far — illegally sharing or downloading material is one thing, but linking to that site or providing a venue where community members might post or exchange copyrighted materials is another. Rather than target the individuals directly responsible for copyright infringement, SOPA casts a wide net that captures every aspect of the network that makes copyright infringement possible.
As it currently stands, I think SOPA needs to be rewritten before it can seriously be considered. If a company doesn't profit from the trade of copyrighted or counterfeit materials, they should be immune. As well, the legal definition of fair use really needs to be expanded and clarified, while copyright protections themselves are badly in need of an update — is making a digital copy of a DVD you own really stealing if you have no intention of sharing that file with others? No sensible person would think so, but that's what the industry claims. In the end your intent is everything in law, but SOPA simply doesn't take your intentions into consideration.
On the other hand there's no denying that something has to be done, and that any tough legislation is really the fault of the pirates. A list of the most pirated games of 2011 suggests that more than 3.89 million cracked copies of Crysis 2 were downloaded illegally, plus 3.65 million copies of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, 3.51 million copies of Battlefield 3, 3.39 million copies of FIFA 12, and 3.24 million copies of Portal 2 — and that's just for PCs, not including console piracy.
There's a lot of debate over the actual cost of piracy — the industries count every illegal download as a lost sale, while free speech advocates point out that a lot of people wouldn't have downloaded the movie, song, game, book or software in the first place if it wasn't free.
Using industry statistics, the movie industry claims $3 billion to $4 billion in annual losses (U.S. dollars).
The music industry is claiming annual losses of about $18 billion. Almost three-quarters of all video games are pirated, representing $41 billion of lost sales. Publishing claimed over $3 billion in losses at the end of 2010. The software industry claimed over $50 billion in losses in 2010.
It total, creative industries say that the total cost of piracy could be a quarter trillion dollars by 2015 — unless SOPA is passed.