The US Stop Online Piracy Act: A primer

The legislation would allow the DOJ and copyright holders to seek court orders blocking payments to allegedly infringing sites

The Stop Online Piracy Act, the subject of a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Wednesday, has generated heated debate since lawmakers introduced it on Oct. 26.

The bill, called SOPA, would allow the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek court orders requiring online advertising networks, payment processors and other organizations to stop payments to websites and Web-based services accused of copyright infringement.

Supporters of SOPA argue that U.S. law enforcement officials need new tools to fight websites, particularly foreign sites, that sell infringing products, including music, movies, clothing and medicine. Some infringing products are dangerous; others cost U.S. companies billions of dollars a year, supporters say.

Current copyright enforcement laws in the U.S. have little effect on hundreds of foreign websites that sell counterfeit products or pirated music and movies, SOPA supporters say. While U.S. law enforcement officials can shut down infringing sites in the U.S., they generally can't reach foreign sites, supporters say.

"The sale of counterfeit products and piracy of copyrighted content online not only undermines our nation's economy [but also] robs state and local governments of much-needed tax revenue and jobs," Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna said in a statement released Wednesday. "Even worse, some counterfeit goods can pose serious health and safety hazards to consumers. Rogue sites legislation seeks to clamp down on this scourge."

Opponents of the bill argue it would empower litigious copyright holders to seek court orders targeting many legitimate websites, including sites with user-generated content such as Twitter and YouTube. The legislation would overturn the notice-and-takedown process in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and would slow U.S. technology innovation, with new Web-based services likely targeted by copyright holders, critics say.

SOPA would lead to censorship of legitimate websites and protected free speech on sites that may contain some infringing content, critics say. The bill is inconsistent with the U.S. Department of State's push for Internet freedom worldwide, they say.

"This is a bill that would eviscerate the predictable legal environment created by the DMCA, subjecting online innovators to a new era of uncertainty and risk," said David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "It would force pervasive scrutiny and surveillance of Internet users' online activities. It would chill the growth of social media and conscript every online platform into a new role as content police."

What's in the bill?

SOPA, introduced Oct. 26, would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders to stop online ad networks and payment processors from doing business with foreign websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement.

The DOJ-requested court orders could also bar search engines from linking to the allegedly infringing sites and order domain name registrars to take down the websites and Internet service providers to block subscriber access to the sites accused of infringing.

SOPA would also allow copyright holders to seek court orders requiring online advertising networks and payment processors to stop supporting the alleged infringers if those businesses do not comply with requests from copyright holders. The court orders requested by copyright holders could target U.S. websites and services that enable or facilitate copyright, in addition to foreign websites.

Section 102 of the bill would set up the process for the DOJ to ask for court orders targeting online ad networks, payment processors, search engines, ISPs and domain name registrars. The DOJ would have to notify the owner of the allegedly infringing website that it is seeking a court order. The DOJ would decide if a site infringes copyright and it could determine a site is infringing if a "portion" of it has copyright violations.

Section 102 also says that ISPs, search engines and the other services ordered to stop doing business with an allegedly infringing site cannot be sued for cutting off service to that site.

Section 103 of the bill sets up a process for copyright holders to request that payment processors and online advertising networks stop doing business with sites alleged to "engage in, enable, or facilitate" copyright infringement. If the processors and ad networks refuse the request, the copyright holders could seek a court order. The payment processors and ad networks have seven days to show the court they have complied or will comply with the order.

If a copyright holder knowingly misrepresents that a site is dedicated to infringement, or if a respondent to an infringement claim knowingly misrepresents that a site is not dedicated to infringement, they can be liable for damages, including court costs and attorneys' fees.

Section 104 of SOPA gives legal immunity to any service provider, payment network provider, Internet advertising service, advertiser, Internet search engine, domain name registry, or domain name registrar for voluntarily taking action against websites dedicated to infringement.

Section 106 directs the U.S. registrar of copyrights to conduct a study on the effectiveness of SOPA and on "any need to amend the provisions of this title to adapt to emerging technologies."

Section 201 would make it a crime to stream, on the Web, works protected by copyright without permission. The maximum penalty would be five years in prison for a first offense of streaming 10 pieces of music or movies within six months.

Supporters and opponents

The 25 sponsors of SOPA include Republican Representatives Lamar Smith of Texas, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Mary Bono Mack of California; as well as Democratic Representatives Howard Berman of California, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Melvin Watt of North Carolina. Smith is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Several lawmakers have also voiced opposition to the legislation. They include Democrats Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Mike Honda and Doris Matsui, all representing districts near Silicon Valley in California, Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, and Republican Representatives Darrell Issa and John Campbell of California, and Ron Paul of Texas.

Several groups have voiced support for SOPA, including the Motion Picture Association of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau, the National Consumers League, 43 state attorneys general, the National Fraternal Order of Police, the AFL-CIO, the Independent Film and Television Alliance, the American Federation of Musicians, the Directors Guild of America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Screen Actors Guild.

Organizations opposed to SOPA include Google, Yahoo, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, Human Rights Watch, Public Knowledge, Free Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, the conservative group Americans for Job Security, the liberal group Demand Progress and Consumers Union.

What's next?

SOPA is similar to, but more expansive in some ways than the Protect IP Act, a bill awaiting action by the U.S. Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Protect IP in May, but Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has blocked the bill from coming to the floor of the full Senate.

If the House Judiciary Committee votes to approve SOPA, it would then move to the House floor for a vote. The Senate would also have to approve SOPA or similar legislation before the bill is sent to President Barack Obama for his signature or veto.

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 grant_gross@idg.com.

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