The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or ‘HR 3261b’ is a US bill designed to expand the ability of US law enforcement agencies and copyright holders to fight the online trafficking of copyrighted and counterfeit goods.
The bill is being debated by the US Congressional Judiciary Committee today. So what’s the issue?
The bill has come about mainly due to the actions of lobbyists for the music and film industries who are frustrated at their inability to stop film and music track piracy says the bill’s detractors. But in aiming to deal with this problem the bill has taken a broadsword swipe at the whole internet.
The problem is that the SOPA approach increases the scope for liability in copyright infringement and would, if the bill goes through, now fall on the search engines, social sites and blogs as well as on the actual copyright infringer.
Many internet experts believe that this will not stop the determined internet copyright infringers, but that it will stifle internet growth and web-based jobs at a time when the only growth industry is the internet.
The terms of the act are extremely wide despite what the bill’s supporters say. A very good round up of the position can be found here:
Under SOPA, you can be found "dedicated to the theft of US property" if the core functionality of your site "enables or facilitates" infringement. The core functionality of nearly every internet website that involves user generated content enables and facilitates infringement. The entire internet itself enables or facilitates infringement.
So anyone who runs a forum or a blog where other people contribute and comment could find themselves liable for the actions of others. No more images or film clips, no more article extracts. Many of these probably end up in increasing sales and brand exposure and not loss of sales to the copyright owner.
But what would the impact be on sites like Facebook and Youtube as well as article libraries and Wikipaedia etc? They won’t be shut down but they will become barren deserts in comparison to today’s offering, well for the USA anyway. It could even have ramifications for search engines, they after all ‘facilitate’ the finding of all content.
But on the other hand how many blog or small site owners have slaved over their content only to have it copied into a forum or social discussion site where it is discussed generating many page and advertisement impressions, but not for the creator but for the forum or social site owner. In fact the original author may be totally oblivious as to how far his/her content has travelled around the web. Thousands of page impressions effectively stolen from them.
There are also many identical videos on YouTube for example, how many copies of each song do we really need?
SOPA may have the side effect of reducing the size of the web, but there would be far, far less duplicated material and more chance of the original author getting properly recognised and recompensed.
Many pundits are calling this the end of the web. A loss of traffic from the US would damage everyone they say. Traditional link-building would no longer work and social signals for search would damage rankings.
I’m not so sure. We could end up with properly controlled social sites that then share their success with the true authors. Just take a look at YouTube’s new copyright checker, something which could be improved and extended to all social sites. Sites would also no longer waste time trying to swap links and instead create more unique material and ranking algorithms would change to suit.
Maybe the reality is that we have grown too used to copyright infringement on the web and hidden it behind the concept of freedom of speech. But freedom of speech and copyright are not the same thing.
Freedom of speech allows the author to say, write or take and show an image of something. What it does not cover is someone else benefiting from it without paying or the author’s permission.
Maybe a smaller internet filled with truly individual sites with original content would be a better experience for the user in the long run.
The only problem would be, how could we find them without search as we know it and social sites? Especially if anyone who runs a search engine was scared of litigation.