Friday, January 20, 2012

What's so dangerous about SOPA?

Wednesday saw websites like Wikipedia doing black outs in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). Petitions have been circulating for months. It would seem the negative of backlash may have made an impact.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored PIPA, was the first to officially withdraw his support of the act calling for more discussion before new copyright legislation is introduced. Others followed suit including Senators Orrin Hatch, of Utah, Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, Roy Blunt, of Missouri, John Boozman, of Arkansas, and Mark Kirk, of Illinois.

Lamar Smith, the Texas representative who first introduced SOPA, isn’t budging though. According to a article, he promises to reintroduce the bill to the House for discussion in February, so at the very least SOPA isn’t going anywhere.

While discussion of both these acts, which many fear could ruin the Internet as we know it, have been going on for months, for some this may have been the first they’ve heard of them. So. what’s so bad about them? Certainly stopping online piracy isn’t a bad thing, right? In theory it isn’t a bad idea, but how do you even define what qualifies as piracy? The legislation, in its original form, was written in a vague enough way that it could potentially be used to put a muzzle on many websites.

SOPA’s main targets are overseas sites like The Pirate Bay, which is a treasure chest of illegal downloads of movies and TV shows. U.S. copyright laws holds no jurisdiction internationally. SOPA would blacklist pirate sites by requiring U.S. search engines, advertising networks and other providers to withhold their services.

According to a CNN Money article, sites like YouTube are worried that they would be forced to more closely police their content to avoid running afoul of the new rules.

An article on features the Recording Industry Association of America explaining that SOPA could be used to deny “access to only the illegal part of the site” that is found to be questionable. Many fear this could lead to sites like YouTube being targeted.

The same article quotes Laurence Tribe, a high-profile Harvard law professor, as saying SOPA is unconstitutional because, if enacted, “an entire Web site containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement.”

The implications of both acts stretch further than YouTube, but let’s continue to use that site as our example. It is true, a lot of videos on YouTube are blatant re-postings of copyrighted material and it is understandable why the copyright holders would want to stop this, but there are concerns that SOPA would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

There’s a good deal of content on YouTube that uses copyrighted material in interesting and creative ways. A popular trend for the last few years has been movie trailer mash up, which will take the audio from one film and match it with another. The better ones are done with a real sense of wit and skill. A recent example of this combines the new “Dark Knight Rises” trailer with “The Lion King” with striking results. If the fears about SOPA are true, the act could potentially put an end to content like this.

Use of copyrighted material in this way falls under fair use which allows for some of the content of a work to be used in a parody. Copyrighted material also falls under fair use in criticism and scholarly work. Using part of a song or video is comparable to quoting a literary work.

I personally encounter fair use issues on YouTube often when posting videos that feature clips of movies I am reviewing. Even though the video falls under fair use, it is flagged. Nothing usually happens and the video still stays up, but with SOPA it could be potentially taken down. Supporters of SOPA say that this is too extreme a reading of the law, but those against it don’t want to even head down a path that could lead to censorship.

The loss or crippling of a site like YouTube would be huge. While for many YouTube is just a 24/7 version of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” it is also a valuable platform for aspiring filmmakers, animators, actors, musicians and other artists to share their work and opinions. Silencing any part of it would be a tremendous loss.

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