Over the last week many of you probably heard about a controversy brewing in intellectual property law. While this dry field usually doesn't serve up much fodder to the popular press, protests by large websites such as Google and Wikipedia have helped bring the issue to the fore. They say we should tell Congress not to censor the Internet.
So what is all the fuss about? SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act will have a chilling effect on bloggers as well as companies like Blogger and You Tube that post links to content posted by others. If SOPA becomes law, copyright holders can have websites shut down and their operators hauled into court if they post links to copyrighted material that was placed online without the copyright holder's consent.
So what is wrong with that. Shouldn't Hollywood movie studios and recorded music companies have the right to control distribution of content that they own? They will have you believe that without SOPA they are defenseless from interlopers making money off their property. Well, they are not defenseless. they have currently have recourse under the current online piracy law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
One key difference between DMCA and SOPA is that under DMCA, copyright holders have the right to write a website and demand that they remove unauthorized copyrighted material. The holder has to describe the specific material that they have objections to. More importantly, the website that is being asked to remove the material has the benefit of a "safe harbor" provision, which allows them to remove the material and escape legal liability. This link from the US Copyright Office provides more information on DMCA. http://www.copyright.gov/legislation/dmca.pdf
Under SOPA legal liability attaches as soon as the offending material or links to the offending material are posted. So basically SOPA gets rid of the safe harbor and the opportunity for websites to comply with the wishes of copyright holders without penalty.
So why is it so difficult for websites to comply with copyright law? Basically it is not always clear that the material has an enforceable copyright. For instance, the original "Night of the Living Dead" movie carries a copyright bug, but it is nonetheless in the public domain. Before the current law came out, which extends copyrights for 100 years, they lasted for a relatively short time unless the holders renewed them. And back in the old days when the only way you could see a movie was to go to the theater or through broadcast TV, material lost its commercial value quickly after it was no longer being shown. That's because the public had no way of getting access to it, save by buying a 16 millimeter movie reel at a fairly high cost. So the holders allowed the copyrights to lapse on things like old horror movies because they had no way of making money off them.
Secondly, even if the material has a good copyright, it is not always clear that it is online without the tacit or explicit permission of the holder. For instance, musicians commonly make available for free a few songs on their websites to get the public interested in buying other tracks that are only available for a fee. Another example is pornography, which is probably the most prevalent motion picture material available on the web today. Adult movie studios routinely post abbreviated versions of their movies online in order to help sell the full-length versions.
So, whether you have a blog and want to link to an interesting You Tube movie or you are just a web surfer who wants to see an old Betty Boop cartoon from the 1930s or the original Diver Dan episode, you have an interest in stopping SOPA.
So write your congressman and tell him not to censor the web.
By the way, here is a link to a Betty Boop cartoon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onLpqUYuMZw&feature=related' Here is the Diver Dan promo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCPa4Rci7ec.
(By the way, if this sounds like it was written by a lawyer, I let one previously unknown fact about me slip. I am a member of the New Jersey bar and graduated in 1999 from Rutgers School of Law - Camden.