The Internet Goes On Strike: SOPA And What It Means For Readers

No, the Internet isn’t broken and your connection is fine, but it is true that a number of popular websites are not working today. And yes, this is deliberate. As of this morning, several sites, including Wikipedia, Wordpress, reddit, and TwitPic, are taking part in a strike to mark their opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA). The strike will last until tonight.

SOPA is a bill that is currently moving through Congress. It’s an anti-piracy measure that will extend the U.S. Government’s law into cyberspace, allowing the government to block certain sites that they believe violate or infringe upon intellectual property rights. SOPA and its corresponding bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), are intended to help preserve the copyright of intellectual property. 

SOPA has both its supporters and its naysayers. It’s a difficult subject because this legislation will have to walk the line between protecting people — such as writers, musicians and actors whose works are being pirated — and respecting Freedom of Speech which is protected by the First Amendment.

The Issue: Protecting Intellectual Property Online 

Before launching into a discussion about how to protect intellectual property online, it’s important to understand exactly what intellectual property (IP) is.

Intellectual property is an idea that falls under a certain set of laws that protect the idea from being turned into a commodity that is sold for profit by anyone other than the idea’s original creator. The copyright of intellectual property acts as a protective umbrella for many types of creative expression, such as art, music, written words and inventions. Anyone can use intellectual property (I can read aloud from a book for everyone to hear), but when a person takes someone else’s idea and turns it into a commodity that they sell, this is copyright infringement. 

For example, anyone can sing or play the song “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga for fun. However, if you record your own version of “Poker Face” and sell it, without having received the rights to that song, it is illegal. This is because “Poker Face” (its notes and lyrics, not the physical album) is IP copyright by Lady Gaga’s label, Interscope Records. But what if you decided to make a YouTube video of your cat dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and it becomes a hit? This is where things can get hazy. 

(It’s important to note that SOPA isn’t geared towards shutting down YouTube, or keeping you from having fun with your cat. Instead its aim is to shutdown websites where one could illegally download Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” rather than purchasing it from a legal vendor.) 

What SOPA Could Do

If SOPA passes, it would allow the Department of Justice to shut down any website that is committing copyright infringement on IP. Government agents aren’t the only ones that can start this process, any copyright owner whose IP had been infringed on a website could petition to have that site shut down. Additionally, referral sites (such as Google or Twitter) would be prohibited from sending traffic to those websites. 

SOPA’s Supporters

If passed, the aim of SOPA would be to slow the massive influx of digital piracy, which results in extremely high profit losses for copyright owners across many industries. So it’s no surprise that many in the media industries support the bill. Those who are in favor of this Internet legislation feel that this law may finally protect artists’ work from pirates. Individual artists, bands, companies, such as CBS and Macmillan, as well as associations such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Association of American Publishers, have all come out in support of the bill. Notably Publishers Weekly reports, “Tom Allen, AAP president and CEO, has called SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act, ‘responsible bipartisan proposals offering reasonable measures to help safeguard the creative products of American ingenuity.’”

SOPA’s Critics

Although the goal of SOPA and PIPA would be to decrease the revenue losses of artists, critics worry that in its current state the broad provisions of the bills would create virtual “blacklists” of sites that contain copyrighted material and be used to apprehend common Internet users rather than copyright infringers. Fighting to stop SOPA are many tech companies, academics, the library community, constitutional scholars and free speech advocates, many of which are participating in the strike today. The American Library Association is one of SOPA and PIPA’s strongest critics in the book community. In a letter to House representatives, the Library Copyright Alliance (which includes the ALA), expresses their concern for the common Internet user by stressing that “there are millions of Internet users who are neither criminal infringers nor content conglomerates, and policies to punish the former or protect the latter can affect broad swaths of innocent users.” 

What SOPA Means For Authors and Readers

Earlier this week, RT posted a story on the plagiarism that plagues digital self-publishing. With the growth of the Internet copyright infringement has increased tremendously, so it is no wonder that a system to keep pirates from stealing others’ work is needed. Theoretically, SOPA or a similar bill would punish those caught violating intellectual property laws, which would mean authors would rightfully profit from work they produced. 

However, what would the cost of this be if SOPA is passed? For one thing, fan fiction would be made a thing of the past. That’s right, it would be illegal to use your favorite books or movies as a source of your own creative writing. (You can read an interesting discussion among fanfic writers about SOPA and what it means for them here.) Additionally, sites that cater to video gamers that post user-generated content like screenshots and videos could come under fire and ultimately affect the world of gaming communities. If you enjoy looking at all the fan-generated content online, from YouTube to tumblr to websites that host fan art and fan fiction, your time spent online could drastically change if SOPA passes. 

What’s Next

SOPA is currently in a congressional subcommittee, but it looks like the upcoming open vote will be delayed until SOPA is supported by the majority. Similarly, PIPA will not be voted upon in the Senate due to concerns that these bills are fundamentally “flawed”. Additionally, the White House has refused to take position on the bills. A recent official White House response claims that the Administration will not support legislation that “reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecuity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet”. With these kinds of responses from government officials, as well as the widespread protests about the bills (including today’s 12-hour web strike), it seems like it is only a matter of time before SOPA and PIPA are shut down. 

But the question still remains, how will authors and artists protect their copyrights in the digital age?

Do you have an opinion about SOPA and PIPA? Let us know in the comments below. And for more news about stories that are affecting the publishing industry, click here.