SOPA and PIPA for newbies

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If you have just clued into the hotly raging debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act or the Protect Intellectual Property Act, thanks to a variety of popular sites replacing their content with anti-SOPA/PIPA messages, your first reflex may to be shout, “I love the Internet, thus I hate SOPA and PIPA.” But there’s plenty more to learn about these complex and controversial bills. Here’s your quick guide to the proposed pieces of legislation and a one-stop shop to resources that can help you learn more.

What are SOPA and PIPA in general?

SOPA stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act, which was introduced in the House in October, and sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith. A copy of it can be found here. PIPA is the Senate version of the same bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and others, some of whom have begun distancing themselves from the legislation. The bills aim to halt the spread of pirated content on the web by several means, which originally included taking the names of offending sites from the DNS directory — the address book for the Internet. So far, SOPA sponsor Rep. Smith said he would remove the DNS provisions from the bill, while PIPA sponsor Leahy said he would hold hearings on the issue. The bills also seek to force payments processors to halt money flowing to pages that host potentially pirated content. More detailed information can be found here.

Why is everyone so upset?

While the stated intent behind SOPA is to halt the spread of pirated goods and content from bad actors, the way the bills are written the punishments associated don’t match the crimes. Having pirated content appear on a site, even without the knowledge or action by the site’s owner, can lead to a site being shut down without the owner having a chance to defend itself. It also threatens content hosting sites by cutting off their money flow if they are deemed to be hosting an infringer, until they can otherwise prove they are exempt from the infringement claims. Basically it turns the American idea of innocent until proven guilty to guilty until proven innocent. For more takes on this see a publisher’s comments, a venture capitalist’s and a cloud entrepreneur’s take.

What is the argument for these bills?

The argument made by those in support of the bills is that intellectual property theft is out of hand and is expedited by the web. Current controls such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act do not offer a big enough stick to stop bad actors from sharing and spreading priated content and goods. Additionally there is an argument that counterfeiting goods not only results in losses to their original manufacturer, but in the case of food, drugs and even watches, can cause potential harm or inconvenience to the buyer if they are unaware of the subterfuge. Finally, there is an argument that the web is freaking out over the bills for no reason.

Where can I learn more?

For discussions of SOPA, check out this article from my colleague Mathew Ingram, this one offering a historical perspective from Ars Technica, or this fact sheet from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. You could also read the bill.

For the information on PIPA, read this article, this Reddit analysis, or the bill itself.

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