THE SAGA OF SOPA: Part 1 of 2 covering the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act

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By Calder Phillips-Grafflin

By the time you read this, the great anti-SOPA blackout day of 2012 will be over. Both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act are the latest attempts to strengthen copyright enforcement in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, the primary sponsor for both pieces of legislation is the entertainment industry, in particular the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). SOPA and PROTECT IP cover a wide variety of types of copyright enforcement, ranging from cracking down to fake purses to counterfeit auto parts.

The real controversy of SOPA and PROTECT IP deals with the changes they would bring to online anti-piracy enforcement. Effectively, SOPA and PROTECT IP destroy the existing “Safe Harbor” provisions that allow most of your favorite websites to exist.

While it has been heavily criticized, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 provides an extremely important “Safe Harbor” provision that protects online service providers from infringements in user-generated content. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? In practice, the safe harbor provisions make it possible for websites like Google, Reddit and YouTube to exist at all, since they are protected from any copyright infringement (like using a protected song in your latest video) by their users.

Without these protections, much of the user-generated web will likely disappear in the face of lawsuits. Defending against copyright infringement lawsuits is an expensive and time-consuming process, and few companies beyond Google or Microsoft have the funds or dedication to fight it out. Smaller websites, or those supported by their users like Wikipedia, Reddit and others, will simply disappear.

Next week, we’ll be covering the Jan. 24 vote on PROTECT IP Act and changes to SOPA.

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