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Summary:

Recent talk of an internet piracy plan has reached such a pitch that an outsider could be forgiven for thinking participants were discussing…

Referee blowing whistle
photo: Getty Images / Jamie Squire

Recent talk of an internet piracy plan has reached such a pitch that an outsider could be forgiven for thinking participants were discussing immigration or terrorism.

In case anyone missed it, the fuss is about the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill that would deputize search engines, advertisers and other internet players as part of a campaign to shut down rogue websites. These “rogues” are foreign sites that sell unauthorized versions of US products like movies, shoes or pills.

The issue isn’t that complicated. At its core, it’s about deciding the role of different industries in monitoring and enforcing intellectual property rights. Unfortunately, the debate so far has been all about hysterics and hyperbole. SOPA supporters are casting opponents as free-loading, unpatriotic criminals. Meanwhile, the bill’s detractors say that brand owners want to bring about Chinese-style censorship and the “end of the Internet.”

The problem with this rhetoric is not just that it’s inaccurate but that, after a point, it’s boring. The SOPA screaming attracts partisans but few people who want to discuss a balanced approach to the piracy problem.

SOPA critics, for instance, rarely concede that US companies have a reason to be upset about these websites. If you’re curious, here’s one where you can buy fake Tiffany stuff from China. And here’s one registered in Montenegro where you can download nearly any song, book or movie for free.

Many Americans feel intuitively there is something wrong with these sites. That’s why SOPA’s sponsors have had such an easy time getting bipartisan support for the bill –the public doesn’t like the idea of foreigners stealing intellectual property from US companies. SOPA critics don’t seem to get this. While they have produced numerous tirades about greed and censorship, they have said precious little about what to do about the offending websites.

Unfortunately, the sins of the other side have been even worse. Brand owners and the content industry have used the rogue websites as a pretext to push for a legislative moon shot in the form of SOPA. SOPA supporters won’t admit that the bill, as drafted, is about much more than foreign websites and that it could have a series of harmful consequences for technology and free speech. Instead, they are doubling down on press releases about protecting America from crime.

Senator Ron Wyden has tried to break the impasse with a rival piece of legislation that would vest new enforcement power in the International Trade Commission. The proposal, however, only seems to have triggered yet more overwrought press releases from SOPA supporters. And in any case, the ITC scheme could prove feckless in practice (see Professor Eric Goldman’s thoughts here).

Any real progress in the piracy debates will ultimately require a shift not just in substance but in tone. This would mean SOPA opponents acknowledging the problem (or even the existence) of the foreign websites. In turn, brand owners and their allies, including the Chamber of Commerce, should stop using the websites as a pretext to ram a galaxy of questionable measures through Congress.

Alas, a rational public discussion on intellectual property enforcement for now seems about as possible as a calm chat about the Mexican border.

  1. SOPA is not about stoping piracy. Stoping piracy is just a pretext, but we hope it will not pass.

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  2. dead on.

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  3. Jeff Roberts is neither smart, nor a good writer.

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  4. “SOPA critics don’t seem to get this. While they have produced numerous tirades about greed and censorship, they have said precious little about what to do about the offending websites.”
    My God, there are scams on the INTERNET?! Shut. Down. Everything.

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    1. Bowser — In the phrase you cite, I am simply trying to point out that SOPA’s sponsors are invoking an argument that is a political winner (not that the argument is true or justified).

      For what it’s worth, my own position on SOPA is that it’s a misguided, overreaching piece of legislation. I just wish a more nuanced discussion could replace the partisan shout-fest.

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    2.            When I watched the hearing .. google’s Katherine Oyama suggested  attacking rouge websites using similar methods as were used to take down WIkileaks. Going after the advertisers and funding. She was the only admitted opponent to the bill during the hearing.           She did offer plenty of perspectives regarding offending websites.          Jeff Roberts.. Did you take the time to watch the hearing? or did you read about it in the paper weeks later?

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  5. greedy world citizen Sunday, December 11, 2011

    Through targeted censoring of websites based outside of the United States, SOPA ultimately enables the shrinking of one’s world view. Something American citizens require no more of if the world is to change for the better. Piracy and intellectual property as talking points are the wool over eyes.
    Why would anyone want to protect the rights of a wealthy fashion
    designer or blockbuster film director as if they were their own? Because they’ve already been taken from you? Why fight for the CHANCE to eat a piece of a poisoned pie? Are you that hungry?

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  6. Concerned Citizen Sunday, December 11, 2011

    The ability to shut down any website, at will, because there happens to be a single iota of copyrighted content isn’t censorship?  Someone’s been reading MPAA talking points.

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  7. Opponents of SOPA don’t care about the “problems” of the 1%.  People KNOW when they are buying face goods.  http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20091202/1503337167.shtml  Hollywood breaks box office records year after year. http://boxofficemojo.com/alltime/ The pop starts of the last few years have outsold many of pop starts of the last 20 years combined.  http://www.buzzfeed.com/daves4/12-extremely-disappointing-facts-about-popular-mus  So sorry if we don’t want these complainers of non-problems to be given dictator-like powers to kill any speech they don’t like, such as major artists supporting the routing around their labels: http://boingboing.net/2011/12/10/universal-music-files-fraudule.html.  It is hard to sympathize with a problem that does not exist.  The real motive behind SOPA it for the powerful to gain more power and monopoly.  RIAA and MPAA member’s output now represent a small fraction of the overall marketplace in their respective industries because people are releasing new music and movies outside of their control.  The ones who are succeeding are giving a people a reason to buy.

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  8. Jay, I did watch portions of the hearing and found it a farce. It appeared designed as political theater with Google put in the role of outlier and villain. And this perhaps explains the tone of the debate — SOPA’s proponents have resorted to mercenary tactics to advance their agenda, leaving critics in a position where they feel compelled to do the same.

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  9. IP itself is a subject open for debate. On one side you have people saying that they worked hard to create products and want to make money – and I support their right to sale it personally. On the other side there are people who say that IP requires the creation of false scarcity and requires a lot of force to keep its value – and I support their right to copy whatever they want. The firms selling IP are very huge and in reality these things are just information. Real economic problems like scarcity have created a lot of arguments throughout history. Why do we need to create artificial ones? Theres an old saying that Artists don’t become famous until they die and it’s true. Most innovative people care more about their ideas coming to life than making a profit. And if people like their ideas, then people will donate but we really don’t need government solving the problem for us.

    The very fact that the subject is still controversial, even be it a majority against a minority, should show that we should be more concerned about getting on the same page than allowing one business to shutdown the profits of other firms by not allowing them to provide their service. We tried arresting people who downloaded stuff and they found ways around it. Now we want to block websites and force ISP’s to lose the ability to control their business. The internet – one of the last frontiers of freedom – is going to be centralized in a nation built on freedom and individual determination. This country is sick.

    And even if you don’t agree with me, this is just a porker bill. Like with everything else Congress manages to screw up they give Bureaucrats the authority to decide who is guilty and the ability to enforce their decisions. The last thing this country needs is a war another war against ideas. They have never worked in the past and the true opponents of this bill don’t want to look for alternatives which include stopping peaceful people from exercising their freedoms to do things that may be morally wrong (allusion to the drug war). The opponents simply want the government to stop fighting individuals on the behalf of corporations and wasting everyone’s money to benefit the few (not the many, which the government still shouldn’t do).

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  10. There is one consideration that seems to be ignored: Online streams of the videos provided by legitimate sources do not include captioning or subtitles. This would exclude a large audience of the deaf, people with English as a second language and people that wants to watch the videos without sound on to not disturb anyone nearby.

    In order to watch these videos, one would need to download the subtitled files, most of them made by those that are willing to volunteer their time to write the transcript and since they are technically part of the copyrighted materials, websites that has transcripts and subtitles would be taken down if this bill passes.

    In addition, one would also need to download the video files in order to watch the videos with the subtitles, and obviously, the websites that streams the videos do not offer this option. So any websites that gives that option are also taken down.

    SOPA has a very good chance of adversely affecting an disabled audience. It punishes those that helps the disabled by providing these materials.

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