SOPA / PIPA: Business on a Rope


You may not have heard much about SOPA and its counterpart in the U.S. Senate, PIPA.

SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) have a noble and necessary cause behind them: To protect the intellectual property created by U.S. citizens and businesses.

What is “Intellectual Property”?  Movies, music, photos, books, stories, blog posts, computer software, patented processes, engineered work, designs and so on.

No doubt you are aware that there are people and businesses, both inside and outside the U.S., who copy other people’s creations and sell them in authorized outlets. You may know someone who uses an illegal copy of software or a copy of some music that they got from a friend.

If you know someone who is in the software, music, photography or movie business (a short list), or is an author, you’re probably aware that they are tired of having their stuff stolen, particularly when it is resold by criminals.

Anyone in these businesses who has studied the problem knows that there are benefits to having your stuff copied. These benefits can be tough to trace, but they are there. Those benefits usually end when your stuff is copied and then resold without your knowledge/involvement.

As a writer, a software company owner and photographer, I’m painfully aware of the potential and the reality of these kinds of losses.

Time to speak out

It’s rare that I get into political topics here but I think it’s important that small business owners are aware of SOPA/PIPA and the consequences that exist even for non-technical businesses. I’d kept mostly silent about this legislation so far because it seemed so obvious.

Then I found out that most of the SOPA/PIPA attention focused on my state’s Congressional people was coming from out of state. I noticed nothing in the state’s news outlets on the topic. That silence comes across in Washington as tacit approval from the masses.

When you first hear about the proposed legislation, you think “Sure, that makes sense.”

Unfortunately, this legislation is poorly-designed and is clouded by an overbearing amount of influence from the entertainment business. It attempts to fix a problem that needs to be fixed, yet most members of Congress really don’t understand what they are attempting to control and clearly have not thought through the unintended consequences.

One look at CSPAN hearings or their transcripts are enough to make that painfully clear.

It reminds me of the CPSIA situation.

CPSIA was a knee-jerk reaction to thousands of recalls of Chinese goods during the prior Christmas season and was rubber-stamped quickly without enough due diligence on the impact it would have on small businesses – particularly home-based manufacturers. The testing costs seemed tiny to a Mattel or a Lego, but when pushed down to a family making a living from handmade goods – they were crushing blows. Within two years, home-based businesses all over the country were forced to close because they couldn’t absorb the unscalable costs to small business that Congress never bothered to consider.

Mattel and the rest…got off with self-policing their compliance, despite being the same businesses whose actions provoked the law in the first place.

Much like CPSIA, SOPA/PIPA has the potential to hurt local businesses through the same kind of unintended consequences.

No help from the locals

The more I look around for SOPA / PIPA coverage in the local or state-level media and related comments from my state’s Congressional folks, the more the vacuum told me that something had to be said at the local level. The lack of outcry from the state’s business community makes it clear that it’s off the radar.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that the national press has barely, if not begrudgingly covered it. Here in Montana, there’s been almost no mention of it in the major state-wide press outlets.

SOPA/PIPA are aimed at stopping online piracy. While the law is aimed at protecting many businesses, it was created and driven through committee by the entertainment industry.

The language and methods used in the bill sound like something out of a World War II movie about jackbooted thugs who kick down doors more so than about little things like due process. The law also takes a xenophobic view of the Internet, as if the U.S. has carte blanche to filter and control it on our behalf as if we were Syria, Iran or China.

Anyone can put you at risk – intentionally

Worse than that, these bills do a poor job of actually addressing the problem. Pirates will dance around them as currently written because the methods they use ALREADY ignore much of what SOPA / PIPA use as a means of punishment: losing control of your domain name routing.

Yes, there have been recent modifications in the bill’s language that strike the domain name routing from the House version of the bill, but it only takes a moment to put them back.

Your competition can put you in violation of SOPA/PIPA simply by posting copyrighted material as a comment on your blog, or by linking to a site that uses copyrighted material illegally. Yes, just linking. I know. It sounds as ridiculous as those bogus emails that claim Microsoft is going to send you $50 if you’ll just open that link.

But…it’s dead serious.

Defending yourself isn’t possible until after your site is taken down by your web host, even if that site is what’s fueling your employee and revenue growth.

I wonder how long that reversal will take. And if the reversal gets appealed? What small business owner has the time, patience and money to deal with stuff like this? Very few of them.

If someone doesn’t like something that a local paper says, they can put that paper in the bullseye by linking to pirate sites in the comment section of their site. But you don’t see papers across the state standing up to oppose this law. Wonder why? Follow the money.

Silence from DC so far

Here in Montana, none of our Congressional representation have taken an official public position on SOPA/PIPA so far. The feeling I get from those who have spoken with Washington is “seems like a well-intentioned law so what’s the big deal?”

I think I’ve already touched on that.

You may not be fond of technology. You may be less fond of politicians. I think you’ll be even less fond of the unintended consequences of SOPA/PIPA.

You can learn more about the legislation here and here. There are alternative proposals out there. Don’t depend on my opinion. Make your own and tell your Congressional representation how you feel about this legislation.

UPDATE:This Mashable piece nails the machinery behind the bill.
UPDATE:This TEDx talk from Clay Shirky does a wonderful job of explaining SOPA and the issues behind it.

Thanks to Khan Academy for the video at the top of the post. Excellent job.

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