SOPA: So much to hate, so little time to stop it

December 15, 2011

(Updated 12/16/11 4 pm ET)

It may seem that Congress is getting exactly nothing done these days, with the game of chicken over the payroll tax and the possibility for what seems like the 537th time this year that the U.S. government may run out of money.

So you may be excused for not noticing that a full serious assault on the Internet is being considered by the House, and that it might actually see the light of day through the flotsam and jetsom of bigger business.

SOPA — the Stop Online Piracy Act — is the latest ill-considered attempt by some in Congress to solve a legitimate problem by creating an even bigger, totally unnecessary problem.

Here is the legitimate problem: There are crummy people out there who steal the creative work of others and peddle them as their own. It’s a good business for some, though, not a great a business overall. Aggrieved parties include Hollywood studios, record companies and news organizations, like Reuters and Wired: we all work hard to create stuff, don’t like it one bit when somebody steals our stuff, and pay lawyers lots of money to fight the problem. It’s a cost of doing business, and a price of the history-altering phenomenon of digitization and the world wide web.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the web is global: a site hosted in Uzbekistan is beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. So how do you stop someone way over there, or anywhere outside of the country, from streaming movies they don’t own?

SOPA, in effect, would choke such sites by doing the enforcement here, targeting customers and deputizing suppliers. It would allow private companies pressing a claim to demand that ad networks and services like PayPal and Visa stop doing business with targeted sites. It would empower Internet service providers to block access to such sites from people using their WiFi.

Until Monday, the bill, HR 3261, would have allowed this sort of cease and desist behavior without any judicial oversight. Even its chief sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex), decided this was too broad and watered down the bill. At this writing the bill was being debated for final action in the House Judiciary Committee, where Smith reportedly warned the assembled to bring “a lunch and a flashlight” because the hearing could stretch into Friday.

No matter how watered down the bill may be, SOPA is still a terrible idea. It would allow the Justice Department to force ISPs to block sites. It would tamper with the blueprint of the web — the domain name registry, which keeps track of what sites are “where” — to divert traffic from sites deemed to be infringing upon copyrights.

Update: In a surprise development, the committee agreed to, in effect, put the bill on hold over concerns that altering the domain name registry would cause great damage. Smith said the hearing would resume at the “earliest practical day that Congress is in session”, which could be weeks.

While movie and record label trade groups always claim huge losses from piracy, those numbers can’t be quantified in any meaningful way. Most telling is that the industry always insists that they lost the dollar equivalent of what they would have charged someone who got “Star Trek” off an illegal torrent.

But there is no reason to believe somebody who is paying zero will pay more than zero — by definition, this would not be lost business. And most freeloaders will pay something for an experience better than a crappy pirated version — just not what the owner thinks is fair market value for a product.

This is why there is a Netflix and a Hulu and an enormous DVD business that makes billions in revenue which would not have existed if Hollywood had won the Betamax case to make the first commercially viable DVR illegal … for enabling copyright infringement.

And that’s the point. Apple didn’t disrupt the music business by insisting on a one-price-fits-all tracks and unbundling albums — it recognized that the music industry was withering away because it was trying to prop up a business model which could not be sustained given a number of outside forces. Yes, those forces included Napster. But who really won in spite of themselves (again, see above)? The Pirate Bay, where you can get anything for nothing, or Apple and the labels, which have made billions since the launch of iTunes in 2003?

Free is a compelling price point, and there will always be the contingent who won’t pay a penny more. But protecting a tottering franchise against a tiny minority and inviting the less-than-expert legislators to create rules and regulations about a medium that can’t be really be contained anyway is a recipe for disaster.

SOPA isn’t a done deal yet, but it needs to get on the radar of more non-geeky types — and fast — before this train picks up any more speed. Friend and colleague Felix Salmon may be correct that no “real” people support SOPA, but as someone pretty smart might have postulated, all evil needs to thrive is ambivalence by good.

Photo: Digital graphic, by Steve Johnson ( Used with gratitude via a Creative Commons license.



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Oh boy, is our “Big Daddy” Gov’t at work unconstitutionally again????

Posted by matthew633 | Report as abusive is an example of what damage internet censorship can do.

Around 2000 various commercial music companies pressured into selling because they couldn’t stand the idea of people buying music directly from independents.

Their cover story was that they believed was allowing the posting of copyrighted material. Despite this being a blatant lie, eventually crumpled because they did not have as much legal support as the major music companies did.

Once was bought by the same major music companies that sued them, they expelled the independents, and replaced their music with commercial albums. It failed miserably due to the fact that people came to to hear the independents that they had exiled.

They would eventually allow independents back 5 years later, but the damage had already been done. At that point in internet history there did not exist real alternatives to what used to be, and mostly still do not exist. had been a beacon of independent musical expression but had been ruined by greedy rich people who did not want to compete with it.

Without an outlet to post their music to, most former independents had given up with very few surviving the change to move their music to a different service like ITunes.

Internet censorship in all it’s forms destroys the internet.

Vote NO on SOPA.

Posted by Zarrakan | Report as abusive

When there is plenty of “free copyrighted movies” to download, why would you pay for anything?

The problem with claiming that no loss occurs is that BECAUSE of piracy, people place lower value on “Digital Content” and aren’t as willing to pay for it.

And as the MPAA are the ONLY ones claiming that Pirated Movies are inferior to Bought movies… there really is nothing compelling a pirate to actually BUY what is stolen.

Posted by SomethingElse | Report as abusive

I agree that the proposed cure is a bigger threat to the freedom of our internet as we know it than the “problem” it is supposed to address. SOPS absolutely is a BAD idea, and should NOT become the “law of the land”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Nice article.

Posted by bobSmith | Report as abusive

Let us be perfectly clear:

Yes “There are crummy people out there who steal the creative work of others and peddle them as their own” but almost none of the “owners” of this “creative work” did any of the creating. And that is the problem, and a huge one.

Somehow the creative people who actually *DO* something creative are not being protected by US copyright and patent law. They transfer their “rights” to financial third parties and it is those financial types who get all the money. So why do we make such a big deal out of which layer of derivative functionaries gets what money?? Because they kick part of that money back to our elected “representatives” through bribes we quaintly call “campaign contributions”. This is the Hollywood establishment.

What we need to do is to require legally that artists and inventors retain rights to their works or donate them to the Public Domain. Only a minority of those rights should be for sale. And they should be of shorter duration than the creator’s rights. And not renewable.

Fix copyright law, do not mess up the internet!!!

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Isn’t it strange that with all the problems the US has, the Congress finds time and money to work on protecting Hollywood. Hollywood people are the first whiners when they think their pot of gold is being tampered with but they just love to help Congress give away other people’s money. Hollywood whines and Congress jumps. Perhaps if Hollywood was putting out something decent instead of re-makes of old crap, they wouldn’t be losing money.

Posted by Mandy123 | Report as abusive