A Business Person’s SOPA Primer

If you own or operate a small business you need to know about SOPA. You need to understand how it can affect your business and what you can do should you agree with many citizens of the web that it is bad legislation.

TL;DR

The “Stop Online Piracy Act”[1] is a bad piece of legislation and it is up to all of us to let Congress know we won’t stand for it. This article gives a non-partisan, non-technical, business oriented look at the major problems with the bill. It then calls them to action in protecting this bill.

If DMCA was a hammer, SOPA is a Jack-hammer

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” (DCMA) into law. DCMA was a deeply flawed piece of legislation that has been abused by both the Government and by large media corporations for over a decade now. The one thing it did get right was the concept of “Safe Harbor” [2]. In layman’s terms, if someone post something illegal on your website – for instance a copyrighted MP3 or a video clip – the owner of the copyrighted material can send you a “takedown notice“. If you comply, you cannot be held liable for the infringement. If the material that was taken down was not actually infringing on anyone’s copyright, the original poster can protest and there is a process that you go through.

It has been abused in many cases, especially by large media companies like Warner Music who have admitted to sending automated taken down notices without human review that resulted in material that they do not own and that does not infringe on their copyright being taken down.[3] In court and under oath, Warner Music not only admitted to automated DMCA takedown notices, they admitted to sending a takedown notice for a piece of software they did not own the rights to but didn’t like because they felt it helped people copy files faster.

The important thing to note is that Warner admitted to sending incorrect takedown notices without apology. The DMCA gives them the freedom to wrongly accuse sites of infringement and the content can be taken off-line for as much as 10 days. In Warner vs. Hotfile [4] Hotfile was required to remove the content but no direct revenue was lost. This is not always the case, this month – December of 2011 – Universal Music Group, as part of its war with MegaUpload filed a DMCA takedown notice and had an episode of Tech News Today removed from YouTube. Megaupload – a Hong Kong based file sharing service created a promotional video staring Kanye West, Will.i.am, Kim Kardashian, Serena Williams, Snoop Dog, and other artists supporting the service. Megaupload asserts that it has agreements in place with all the celebrities in the video and that they own the copyright to all the material. Even so, DMCA allows Universal Music to demand that YouTube take the video down. Caught in the crossfire though was a daily video webcast, Tech News Today. Episode 391, which discussed the controversy and played two clips of the video in question as part of a news story, was taken down. It is now back online and available but being a daily news show, being off-line for ten days means that the advertising potential of the show is now almost zero. The production company, twit.tv lost all potential ad revenue for 10 days because Universal Music Group did not like being criticized.

These are two of many egregious abused of the DMCA. It is flawed legislation and should be repealed. However, DMCA does at least have a due process built into it. The content wrongly taken off of Hotfile and the episode of Tech News Today can both be restored, even if the offending companies cannot be punished for their sins. SOPA has no such due process restrictions. Companies that swing the DMCA hammer freely are lining up to start using SOPA to silence critics and shut down businesses that don’t support their business model.

Artists don’t need SOPA, Media Companies Do

Large media associations like the RIAA and the MPAA want you to believe that they are doing this to protect artists’ rights. That foreign websites are robbing the US blind by “stealing” our Intellectual Property. They don’t offer any proof that this is true and they are silent on exactly how much SOPA will prevent these acts. The fact is artists, the very people they are representing, don’t need SOPA. Artists can make money on the Internet without the help of movie studios, record labels, or four letter associations. One of the best examples happened just last week.

Comedian Louis CK produced his own concert video and put it up for sale on the Internet. Without resorting to DMCA takedown notices and without encrypting the video using any Digital Rights management technology, Louis CK was able to sell over one million dollars worth of videos in four days. [5] Artists do not need SOPA; many like Ashton Kutchner [6] or Adam Savage [7] are actively opposed to it. It seems that only large media companies need SOPA protection for this existing business models.

The Domain Name System is a technology, not a weapon

The authors of the bill – mind you that is not any elected member of Congress, but instead their staffers; two of which now work for major media companies [8] [9] – propose that to stop the theft of U.S. Intellectual Property, foreign sites that are found to be “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property” be blocked from being accessed in the U.S. by removing them from the Domain Name System. (DNS) The DNS is what allows you to type in “avoidingagoatrodeo.com” and get to our site; the Internet runs off of IP addresses at its heart and they are hard to remember, even for those of us who work with them. The Attorney General for the U.S. could petition to have a site removed from the DNS system. This is similar to how they currently take ownership of sites accused of the same. The problem is, the current system is ripe with mistakes and malicious intent and SOPA only makes this easier.

In February of 2011, Homeland Security took down 84,000 websites by mistake. [10] [11] In an effort to stop online child pornography, DHS inadvertently shutdown thousands of law-abiding sites for three days. [12] If you don’t think SOPA can affect your website, then ask yourself if the owners of those thousands of websites thought DMCA could ever affect theirs.

The seizing of domains by the Department of Homeland Security is egregious to say the least. However it is not yet technically damaging to the Internet, only damaging to the reputation of the United States. Steve Crocker [13] one of the fathers of the Internet put it best when he said this about the technical ramifications of using the DNS to filter the Internet.

Mandated DNS filtering would be minimally effective and would present technical challenges that could frustrate important security initiatives. Additionally, it would promote development of techniques and software that circumvent use of the DNS. These actions would threaten the DNS’s ability to provide universal naming, a primary source of the Internet’s value as a single, unified, global communications network. [14]

In fact, 74 of the very people that built the Internet are telling us that if we do this, we are opening the Internet up to additional security problems and instability. [15]

On the other hand, members of Congress admit that they have no idea how the DNS works but believe that it should be the weapon used.

Rep. Mel Watt said he was not a technological “nerd,” but said he did not “believe” security experts who said that the internet would become less secure unless Issa’s amendment was adopted. [16]

Congress should listen to the people that designed the Internet – the people that understand the ramifications of the actions they are proposing – instead of dismissing them out of hand and enacting laws that will reduce the security and stability of the Internet.

Call to Action

If the above has given you pause for thought then you need to act now. The fight against SOPA – and all legislation that purports to protect copyright holders – is nowhere near over. Your help is needed.

The first thing – and the easiest thing – you can do is contact your Representative and both Senators. If you don’t have their contact information handy, visit americancensorship.org and they will help you find the right people and contact them. If – like my Congressman Rep. Jim Cooper – your Congressperson is a co-sponsor or supporter of the bill, ask them to explain themselves. Point them to some of the articles below and ask them how they justify supporting a bill like this. Always be polite but remember that they should be working for you, not large companies. This is by far the most important thing you can do to oppose SOPA.

If you are still interested in taking action, here are a few follow-up actions that you can do that take a little time but little or no money.

  • Read SOPA. This will immediately make you more informed than most – if not all – members of Congress. To be effective, you have to be informed.
  • Tweet, post on FaceBook or whatever Social Media site you use. Explain the problems with SOPA and urge your U.S. friends to contact their members of Congress to oppose it. The more of us tweeting about it and discussing it, the harder it is for Congress to act against our will.
  • Review the complete list of SOPA supporters. If you purchase products from one or more of them (and almost all of us do) then tweet, FaceBook or email them expressing your displeasure that they are supporting SOPA. Let them know that you will “vote with your pocketbook” if they continue their support.

If you still don’t believe that SOPA will affect you then ponder the words of Martin Niemöller as he discussed the inactivity of Germans during the rise of the Nazi’s preceding World War II.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me. [17]

While SOPA does not rise to the level of atrocities committed by the Nazi party, the sentiment behind the quote is as relevant today for the fight against SOPA as it was then.

End notes

[1] http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/pdf/112%20HR%203261.pdf
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safe_harbor
[3] http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20111110/10135116708/glimpse-future-under-sopa-warner-bros-admits-it-filed-many-false-takedown-notices.shtml
[4] http://torrentfreak.com/warner-bros-admits-sending-hotfile-false-takedown-requests-111109/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
[5] http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/sales-of-louis-c-k-s-standup-download-top-1-million-20111222
[6] http://aplusk.posterous.com/87693122
[7] http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/mythbusters/articles/mythbuster-adam-savage-sopa-could-destroy-the-internet-as-we-know-it-6620300
[8] http://boingboing.net/2011/12/11/congressional-staffers-behind.html
[9]http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20111209/10151917022/shockingly-unshocking-two-congressional-staffers-who-helped-write-sopapipa-become-entertainment-industry-lobbyists.shtml
[10] http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110217/00082213144/homeland-security-wont-even-admit-whether-not-it-seized-mooocom-taking-down-84000-innocent-sites.shtml
[11] http://www.dhs.gov/ynews/releases/pr_1297804574965.shtm
[12] http://www.informationweek.com/news/security/vulnerabilities/229218959
[13] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Crocker
[14] http://domainincite.com/docs/PROTECT-IP-Technical-Whitepaper-Final.pdf
[15] https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/12/internet-inventors-warn-against-sopa-and-pipa
[16] http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/12/sopa-stalls/
[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came%E2%80%A6