Legislation in the U.S. Congress that would allow federal law enforcement officials to block websites accused of copyright piracy is necessary because of the vast number of foreign sites trading in infringing music and movies and counterfeit products, two supporters of the bills said.
Current copyright enforcement measures, including criminal and civil copyright infringement lawsuits and takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (pdf), are not enough, because they largely can't reach foreign websites engaged in infringement, said Steve Metalitz, a copyright lawyer and partner at the Mitchell, Silberberg, and Knupp law firm.
Copyright infringement is a huge business, added Chris Israel, a partner in the American Continental Group, a public policy consulting firm, and a former intellectual property enforcement coordinator in President George W. Bush's administration. Current tools for copyright owners and law enforcement officials have "some gaps we need to fill," he said.
Some estimates suggest online piracy costs U.S. businesses US$200 billion a year, although those numbers are disputed.
But critics of the two bills said they go too far, particularly SOPA, introduced in late October. SOPA would allow copyright owners to target both U.S. and foreign websites that don't do enough to protect against copyright infringement by their users, said David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group.
SOPA would allow copyright owners to ask payment processors and advertising networks to stop doing business with websites that the copyright holders think are not taking enough action to stop copyright, he said. SOPA would create a "pretty radical restructuring of copyright law," Sohn said.
Cloud computing services, social-networking websites, and other online tools in the U.S. and overseas could be targeted in SOPA, and both bills would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to block the domain names of sites accused of copyright infringement.
"Both of the bills we're talking about today raise significant problems and cause significant collateral damage," he said. "[Domain-name blocking] is a very blunt tool."
With the bills targeting foreign websites for domain-name blocking, Sohn expects that many site owners won't travel to the U.S. to fight the DOJ requests for court orders to block the sites. "It's a burdensome and difficult thing to decide to come to the United States to defend yourself," he said. "I suspect there will be a lot of one-sided cases."
SOPA is "remarkably broad," allowing for courts and copyright owners to broadly define what sites encourage copyright infringement, added Larry Downes, senior adjunct fellow at TechFreedom, a tech-focused, antiregulation think tank. SOPA would allow the DOJ to shut down sites that enable or facilitate copyright infringement, according to the language in the bill.
Earlier Thursday, backers of SOPA distributed a recent letter from free speech lawyer Floyd Abrams to sponsors of the legislation. Abrams discounted concerns from opponents that the legislation would lead to the blocking of websites that include protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
"The notion that adopting legislation to combat the theft of intellectual property on the Internet threatens freedom of expression and would facilitate, as one member of the House of Representatives recently put it, 'the end of the Internet as we know it,' is ... insupportable," Abrams wrote. "Copyright violations have never been protected by the First Amendment and have been routinely punished wherever they occur, including the Internet. This proposed legislation is not inconsistent with the First Amendment; it would protect creators of speech, as Congress has done since this nation was founded, by combating its theft."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.