What Is SOPA, and How Will It Affect You?

Photo: carolyntiry

You may have heard a lot of talk lately about SOPA (which stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act). It started out as whispers between people on the Internet, now it’s getting major pushback from sites as large as AOL, Yahoo!, eBay, LinkedIn, Craigslist, and Reddit. And today, January 18th, many sites are planning to “strike” to show their disapproval of the bill, including Wikipedia, Imgur, and even the mighty Google. But what is SOPA? And if it passes in its current form, how will it change life as you know it? Here’s a quick SOPA 101.

[Please note, at the time of writing this article, some elements of the SOPA bill are supposedly being shelved. Many say this is simply a tactic to draw heat away from the subject, but nothing is concrete yet. And while SOPA may be going away, it may come back again under a different name. You can read more here.]

What Is SOPA? Here’s a Very Simple Rundown

The Stop Online Piracy Act (bill H.R. 3261) was introduced by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) to the House of Representative on October 26th 2011. The premise of the bill is that it will stop copyright infringement (pirated music, videos, games, and so on) with the use of massive penalties and criminal proceedings. These include prison terms (up to five years), website shutdowns, barring search engines from linking to sites, and cutting off payment methods like PayPal.

On the surface, it seems like a good idea. I don’t like piracy — I buy my movies on Blu-Ray, I pay for music, and I download games legally through sites like Steam. But if this were just about piracy, there wouldn’t be such a huge uproar about it. The sad fact is, if this legislation is passed in its current state, it would be like stopping every ship from sailing in the oceans because 0.00001% of them are carrying illegal cargo. (See also: New, Legal Ways to Listen to Music for Free or Cheap)

Is This the Same as PIPA?

No, although they are very much related and the consequences are similar. PIPA stands for the Protect IP Act, and was introduced way back in May of 2011. PIPA itself is a rehash of an older, failed legislation from 2010 called COICA (Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act).

Like SOPA, PIPA gives U.S. corporations and the U.S. government enormous power over the Internet. With PIPA in place, they would have the power to force your Internet service providers (ISP) to block access to any websites “they believe” are infringing copyright. And as this is all a very grey area, the ISPs will always err on the side of extreme caution. Which equates to “Oh, you don’t like that? No worries, it’s gone.”

But that’s just the beginning. They could also forcibly remove advertising from those sites (their primary source of income), sue websites that link to them, and sue websites that have not done a good job of enforcing the strict new regulations.

In a nutshell, so many websites are going to be so afraid of being sued, they will simply block content from almost every source. In conjunction with SOPA, it’s a double-whammy that aims to give corporations and the government complete control of the Internet. Talk about Big Brother is watching you.

The Deeper Ramifications of SOPA

Unlike PIPA, which is more targeted, the building blocks of SOPA are very broad. It will make it possible to clamp down on an enormous chunk of the Internet, destroying the free exchange of information that has made the Internet what it is today. Many organizations, like The Guardian, are calling it “The Great American Firewall.”

Sites like Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit could cease to exist as you know them today. Right now, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides a safe harbor for these sites. They remove content if it is found to be infringing upon copyright. It’s the honor system, and they honor it. But if SOPA passes, there will be no good faith system. Websites will be monitored and could be shut down instantly when an infringement occurs. No business could operate like that.

And due to the far-reaching legal liabilities they are being opened up to, many popular sites could cease to exist, period. It just wouldn’t be possible to monitor the kind of content they have coming in from millions of people, daily.

Any type of content that is believed to be an infringement of copyright could result in court orders, fines, and jail time. At the very least, videos and images that you now have access to, even something as harmless as a link to a funny clip from the Golden Globes or a music video you like, could be immediately pulled due to copyright infringement.

So, What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

Opponents to the bill, and there are many, say that this is going to destroy freedom of speech on the Internet and also sabotage the information superhighway that makes the Internet possible. That all sounds like pie-in-the-sky language without examples, so let’s bring it down to Earth.

Here are some possible outcomes of SOPA and PIPA, based on the language of the current bill:

  • Posting clips of TV shows, movies, or music videos would be a criminal offense! So would sharing them. That would destroy sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and many more. They would simply become a framework for “officially licensed” videos, and corporations cannot possibly provide the same amount of usable content that people all over the world can.
  • Streaming copyrighted content could put you behind bars for five years. So, if you stream ANYTHING on your own website that could be considered a copyright infringement, you’re in big trouble. And remember, this is all open to interpretation. The song "Happy Birthday to You" is owned by Warner Music Group (they earn $2 million per year in royalties). Streaming a video of you singing to your one-year-old will be punishable by law. That’s not a joke.
  • Karaoke videos and clips would also be illegal, as they are technically cover versions of songs that have a copyright.
  • Many thousands of jobs will be lost. With sites shutting down to avoid petty litigation and lawsuits, jobs will vanish in record time. The affect this could have on the economy, which is already in a rotten state, could be devastating.

What Can You Do to Stop SOPA and PIPA?

Vote with your dollars, and pressure your elected officials. There’s a massive list of companies here that support the bill. Stop buying their products and services. And then let people in government know how bad this will be. This is an election year, no one wants to get on the wrong side of voters.

Hopefully, this will really go away and we can find another way to stop the real problem — genuine pirates who cost the movie, music, and television industries millions of dollars. But as sure as night follows day, they will adapt to any new legislation quickly and everything will be business as usual for them. It’s us, the regular Joes, who will suffer.

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Will Chen's picture

Great breakdown of the issues Paul. This issue hasn't been covered enough in the media. Thanks for bringing it to the attention of our readers.

Paul Michael's picture

Thanks Will, coming from someone with your immense knowledge of the Internet, that's good feedback indeed. I'm just sorry I had to write about it. Hopefully, my follow-up piece will be about how it got completely scrapped. But there's a long way to go yet.

Guest's picture

Excellent breakdown. I'm adamantly opposed to giving government and corporations this amount of power. They've both already proven repeatedly that they act with their best interests in mind, not that of the people, or consumer.
Thank you for taking the time to make this make sense to all of us.

Julie Rains's picture

Great article and I especially like the list of business supporters (that is I like that you included the list!). My teenage son brought SOPA/PIPA to my attention recently -- at first when he referenced online piracy, I thought he was talking about DMCA. When Copyblogger did a piece about the act, though, I understood the difference: basically, "shut down the site, ask questions later" under proposed legislation rather than a real investigation. Its proposal shows how little some people really understand about the Internet, which is sad b/c it is a main driver of commerce and employment (not to mention a great place to share ideas).

Will Chen's picture

It is awesome that your son is so well informed. The fate of the internet really depends on the activism of young people--they understand it more and they are more likely to rally around social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. I hope it translates into actual voting and grass roots organizing as well.

Guest's picture

Sounds like the internet version of the Patriot Act. Will teh next version include a visit from a TSA qualified offical to search you for any copyright infringments?

Guest's picture

You can also click through the black censor box covering the Google logo and it has a petition that you can sign to stop PIPA & SOPA.

Guest's picture

Oooh, I must go check this out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Guest's picture
Mary Judge

WOW!!!! being legally blind,the internet has given me the ability to communicate through facebook,email, with family and friends, I buy online using paypal as a form of payment. I seriously doubt this bill will pass, states counties, our govt,foreign countries virually in essence the internet world would shut down,money talks,bull???? walks. If this bill does pass the whole world be broke!!!!!! Then what??????