Stop Online Piracy Act Causes Controversy Between U.S. Giants

01/27/2012 / Molly T. Eichten

In an effort to combat online piracy, Representative Lamar Smith from Texas introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in October 2011. (A companion bill in the Senate is called the Protect IP Act-PIPA). SOPA would allow intellectual property right holders and the United States Attorney General to obtain court orders against websites that facilitate infringement. Court orders could also be served on service providers for such offending websites (e.g., Internet service providers, payment processors, ad networks, and search engines), barring those providers from providing services to the offending websites. Without those supporting services, the offending website could not operate and would in effect be shutdown. 

The stated purpose of SOPA is to “promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property.” Whether it achieves those objectives, and at what cost, has generated controversy and the bill has attracted the attention of U.S. industry heavyweights. In one corner are Hollywood and the recording industry, who say they are losing billions of dollars each year due to piracy. In the other corner are Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and eBay, who make billions of dollars each year from providing services on the Internet.

SOPA supporters argue that the U.S. needs new tools to combat online piracy and counterfeiting, especially against foreign websites. They believe that existing remedies for intellectual property right holders are very limited or futile where the offending website is outside of the United States. SOPA provides the power to attack a foreign offending website by cutting off its online supply chain. 

SOPA opponents argue that the bill will achieve the opposite of its objective because legitimate websites
that might contain a small portion of infringing material could be shutdown. Such a risk of shutdown, opponents argue, would discourage Internet start-up companies, which have been a catalyst for innovation
in the online economy.

After a sudden groundswell of criticism and withdrawal by previous supporters, SOPA and PIPA were both put on the shelf, with the hope that the factions can coalesce on a solution for combating theft of U.S. intellectual property. However, heated debate is expected to continue if and when the bills are revived. Activity on SOPA (H.R.3261) can be found on the website of the Library of Congress.

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