The past few weeks on Capitol Hill have been busy for culture industry lobbyists, technology companies and civil liberties organizations. Both houses of Congress have been busy considering variations iterations of SOPA (the Stop Online Privacy Act, in some iterations known as the Protect IP Act) that would attempt to address issues surrounding copyright infringement by developing a swift judicial solution to shutting off sites suspected of copyright infringement in the US.
Here's the filmmaker and film fan guide to SOPA as it stands:
What exactly does SOPA do?
The bill would allow the US Attorney General to force US-based Internet Service Providers, search engines, ad networks, and payment companies (e.g. Paypal) to cut off ties to any foreign site found to be violating copyright or facilitating copyright violation. The bill also provides recourse for copyright owners to encourage ad networks and payment facilitators to cut ties with offending companies. It would allow copyright owners to file injunctions against site operators accused of infringement. The bill also addresses counterfeit drugs and other proprietary goods.
Who supports it?
The bill has wide support in the house committee, led by Rep. Lamar Smith (R - TX) that is currently refining it. The culture industry's largest advocacy organizations, like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), are leading supporters of the bill. The house committee heard testimony supporting the bill from representatives for the MPAA, drug company Pfizer, the AFL-CIO, and MasterCard.
In the statement from MPAA policy analyst Michael O'Leary, the focus of the testimony was that SOPA would protect jobs in the film industry. O'Leary used the Joe-the-Plumber technique of persuasion, citing a 25 person staff of a film business in Chicago that could potentially go out of business if piracy continued and expanded.
From an online petition sponsored by LGBT distributor Wolfe Video:
These bills [SOPA/Protect IP Act] will prevent online threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property as well as promoting prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property. Foreign rogue websites that sell LGBT films without the filmmakers’ authorization threaten the vibrancy of the legitimate LGBT film marketplace. Taking indie LGBT filmmakers out of the market or impeding their ability to make future films limits the options of LGBT consumers, limits the diversity of stories and voices in the marketplace, and has a detrimental impact on the understanding of social issues affecting the LGBT community.
Who doesn't support it?
When the House committee took testimony to help consider amendments and alterations to the bill, only one opponent of the bill, Google policy counsel Katherine Oyama, was asked to testify. The nation's top Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, have come out against the bill because it makes what they do incredibly hard to regulate, and threatens them with the possibility of shutdown if links to pirated content appear on their platforms. The biggest of these organizations have been complying with copyright law and finding solutions for allowing artists to thrive.
Speaking with Indiewire, Ben Moskowitz, who heads up Mozilla's Open Video Conference, noted, "There's a few provisions of the law that make people like me nervous. It institutes a due-process-free process for removing things from the Internet. If a filmmaker or, let's be honest, a big studio finds a website that links to an authorized streaming video, torrent, 15 second excerpt (even one used in a fair use context), the process of getting it taken down is too quick.
"Also, their solutions for shutting down a site by restricting access through URL can easily be resolved by typing in the IP address of the site. They think a fifteen year old kid who wants to download music isn't going to find out the IP address and type it into a browser. The implementation is dumb."
Former Tribeca Film Institute head Brian Newman, who now runs a consulting company called sub-genre, added, "There's a true fear that this is going to break down the way that we think about the Internet. The way that it's structured."
So what kind of things could be hurt by the bill?
"Creative people," Moskowitz told Indiewire, "need to test business models and ways of getting content out there and need to push the Interent in different ways. Their priorities are different than Hollywood and the bigger companies."
Newman added, "If you're an investor who's looking to invest in an upstart, a search engine for content that works on a social model, for instance, you might be worried that the site may shut down because it could possibly link to pirated content. It curtails investment. YouTube couldn't be born under this new system. Investors would be too afraid. And if we want to talk about jobs, technology jobs are hindered by not encouraging this kind of entrepreneurial spirit."
Moskowitz gave a few examples of strategies that would be hurt by these policies: "Maybe one of the best ways to get my film out is to donate it, if that channel is a channel used for piracy, I could get caught up on that. Or maybe I'm making a film that uses a lot of samples. Maybe the content owner doesn't agree with my fair-use judgment. It's a big stretch, but under this law, it could get thrust offline. Though it's flawed, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act has a clear process, and this bill doesn't."
Newman continued, "It shows a a failure of the business model in encouraging audiences to buy content instead of stealing it. Last night, I wanted to watch a movie on Netflix on my TV. This is legal. Finding the movie I wanted and getting it all set up took a fair amount of time. I think piracy is the MacGuffin here. The stuff that gets sold the most also gets pirated the most. People are willing to pay for content when they think they're getting a good deal, when it's convenient and when it works. Ultra Violet [the studio's solution to making digital copies of films available for those that buy physical copies of films] is so bad. The technology behind it is so poor. If you go to the Amazon review page of the latest 'Harry Potter' film, there's tons of 1-star reviews. But not because of the film. Because the technology is so bad."
The situation as it currently stands is best summed up by something Newman said in explaining his position: "It's a confusing subject, but needs a more out-in-the-open debate." No one in this conversation is supportive of people funneling money from posting others' creative content. However, it seems clear that the procedure for passing SOPA is not allowing time for the industry, cultural producers, and consumers to find the best solution.