The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has constantly been described as "controversial." But if you've been reading much from the tech part of the web, you're probably wondering what's so controversial about it--after all, it seems like nobody actually supports it, except for several U.S. House representatives.
However, the bill, which was introduced October 26, is actually largely supported on both sides. While the tech industry and many journalists may be oppose SOPA, claiming that it's too heavy-handed and that it would essentially "break" the Internet, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are all in support of the bill.
Several tech industry members also initially supported SOPA, including Apple, Dell, Intel, Adobe, Microsoft, and Symantec, though they withdrew their support after reviewing the bill in its current form.
[Note: The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Friday postponed further debate on SOPA until after Congress' holiday break ends.]
Now, it's not difficult for SOPA criticizers to see why the MPAA and the RIAA support the bill. And with names like the RIAA on board, it's not surprising that a lot of people who learn about SOPA have a gut-reaction to not support the bill--after all the RIAA is perhaps most famous for its ruthless pursuit of pirates who illegally download its artists' songs.
While many people disagree with piracy, it's difficult to remain neutral when a large, multi-million dollar corporation is taking an "Average Jane" type candidate--such as Jammie Thomas-Rasset, who was found liable of infringing 24 songs in 2007 and who has since been ordered to pay varying amounts in statutory damages, ranging from $54,000 to $1.92 million.
Not Just Piracy
But SOPA isn't just about piracy. It's about intellectual property--all property.
"Our mistake was allowing this romantic word--piracy--to take hold," Tim Rothman, Co-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, told the New York Times last week. "It's really robbery--it's theft--and that theft is being combined with consumer fraud. Consumers are purchasing these goods, they're sending their credit card and information to these anonymous offshore companies, and they're receiving defective goods."
Though Rothman may be the co-CEO of an entertainment company, what he's saying is correct--it's not just about piracy. For example, a foreign website selling knock-off designer purses or dresses to Americans would also be covered under SOPA. This type of intellectual property theft is dangerous for several reasons. As Rothman points out, "defective" goods are damaging to brands. For example, if you purchase a fake Louis Vuitton bag--but don't know it's fake--and then it falls apart after two months, that's damaging to Louis Vuitton's brand because you will associate the brand with poor quality merchandise.
While Louis Vuitton has a reputation that precedes it, smaller businesses and innovators do not. Imagine the same situation, but with a small start-up that's struggling to build its image as a provider of quality goods. It's much more difficult for this start-up to build its brand based on quality if intellectual property thieves are allowed to steal its ideas and recreate them in poor-quality form.
Fake Goods Damage American Businesses
In a guest post for Forbes, chief intellectual property counsel for the Global Intellectual Property Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Steve Tepp argues in support of SOPA. Tepp points out that 150 illegal online enterprises were shut down last month by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement--and fewer than five of these sites infringed on intellectual property that belonged to the entertainment industry. In other words, fewer than five of these 150 sites were about "piracy," and the majority of them sold counterfeit consumer goods.
These sites were shut down as part of the "Operation in Our Sites" domestic campaign against theft of intellectual property, but Operation in Our Sites cannot shut down foreign websites. Therefore, Tepp argues, acts like SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) are necessary. Because the U.S. has no jurisdiction to shut down foreign sites, all it can do is block access to these sites and hope that Americans are not duped into purchasing fake goods.
"We would not tolerate for a moment a store that was dedicated to selling illegal and stolen products," Tepp writes. "So why would we ever give criminals a free pass to deceive American consumers and harm our most innovative and productive industries in the Internet marketplace?"