Opposing the “Stop Online Piracy” Act

I’ve been following the issue in articles like this one at The Atlantic, which has a great video that will get you up to speed quickly. Over the weekend I corresponded with one of the members of the Duke Office of Scholarly Communication, who regularly deals with issues of copyright and intellectual property. I share his answers below, but since he is on vacation this week I was unable to get permission to use his name. If you are interested, email me and I will pass along his contact information.

How does this legislation differ from existing copyright and intellectual property laws? That is, does it offer substantial additional protection to creators (e.g. academics) or does it threaten the exchange of information under existing avenues such as fair use?

This bill would not  change the fundamental set of rights and exceptions in copyright.  Its focus is really on enforcement of existing rights, although some provisions, because they would so heavily stress enforcement of rights, seem to change the delicate balance between those rights and the exceptions that are a fundamental part of the policy that underlies copyright.  One objection to this bill is that it is another step toward shifting the costs of enforcement off of the rights holders (through civil litigation) and onto taxpayers, as federal agencies take on more responsibility for enforcing private rights.  As for fair use, it would not be changed in principle, but it might be harder to exercise because of, first, fear of the heavy sanctions for a mistaken judgment and, second, the mechanism in SOPA that would allow a “shoot first and ask questions later” approach to alleged infringement online.  Given that approach, fair use would become even riskier than it is now.

Does this legislation threaten start-up businesses by making it easy for their established competitors to accuse them of a violation?

I think this is a real risk.  Also, since so much innovation is happening right now in the technology to deliver content, the risk of shutting down that innovation in order to protect “legacy” content is very real.

Will this legislation, if passed, have any effect on the way that we deal with copyright and intellectual property issues at Duke?

SOPA could create liability for Duke in its role as an Internet service provider for students, faculty and staff.  By weakening the DMCA “safe harbor” for ISPs, SOPA would force lots of entities, including universities, to either screen materials uploaded by members of the community or to risk greater liability.  Also, technology staff who assist in the sharing of academic content are worried about the new criminal provisions for streaming allegedly infringing media.  Finally, modern websites are build by pulling content and code from a wide variety of sources.  If web hosting services can be shut down so easily, based on a lowered evidentiary standard for infringement, Duke’s own web presence (as well as those of many others) could become unstable.

[End of interview remarks.]

The person with whom I was corresponding went on to say that the strongest objections to SOPA come from the “techologically savvy” community (which seems to be the case in the articles and blogs that I have read as well). As you can see, though, this act poses a threat to academics and researchers as well. Honestly, I haven’t seen any redeeming characteristics of a bill that seems to have a lot of flaws. Readers who disagree or have more information are welcome to share in the comments.