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The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also known as H.R.3261, is a bill that was introduced in the United States House of Representatives on October 26, 2011, by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a bipartisan group of 12 initial co-sponsors. The bill expands the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.[2] Now before the House Judiciary Committee, it builds on the similar PRO-IP Act of 2008 and the corresponding Senate bill, the Protect IP Act.[3]

The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on who requests the court orders, the actions could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators such as PayPal from doing business with the infringing website; barring search engines from linking to such sites and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. The bill would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a felony. The bill also gives immunity to Internet services that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement, while making liable for damages any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement.[4]

Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market, including the resultant revenue and jobs, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws especially against foreign websites.[5] Opponents say it is Internet censorship,[6] that it will cripple the Internet,[7] and will threaten whistleblowing and other free speech.[8]

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on SOPA on November 16, 2011.[9] A House aide said the Committee chairman is scheduling the bill for markup on December 15, and that he is still in discussions and is “open for changes” to the bill.[10]

The bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders against websites outside U.S. jurisdiction accused of infringing on copyrights, or of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement.[4] After delivering a court order, the U.S. Attorney-General (AG) could require US-directed Internet service providers, ad networks such as Google and payment processors such as Paypal or Visa to suspend doing business with sites found to infringe on federal criminal intellectual property laws and take “technically feasible and reasonable measures” to prevent access to the infringing site. The AG could also bar search engines from displaying links to the sites.[11]

The bill also establishes a two-step process for intellectual property rights holders to seek relief if they have been harmed by a site dedicated to infringement. The rights holder must first notify, in writing, related payment facilitators and ad networks of the identity of the website, who, in turn, must then forward that notification and suspend services to that identified website, unless that site provides a counter notification explaining how it is not in violation. The rights holder can then sue for limited injunctive relief against the site operator, if such a counter notification is provided, or if the payment or advertising services fail to suspend service in the absence of a counter notification.[11]

The bill provides immunity from liability to the ad and payment networks that comply with this Act or that take voluntary action to cut ties to such sites. Any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement would be liable for damages.[4]

The second section increases the penalties for streaming video and for selling counterfeit drugs, military materials or consumer goods. The bill would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a felony.[11]

“The bill attempts a radical restructuring of the laws governing the Internet,” Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. “It would undo the legal safe harbors that have allowed a world-leading Internet industry to flourish over the last decade. It would expose legitimate American businesses and innovators to broad and open-ended liability. The result will be more lawsuits, decreased venture capital investment, and fewer new jobs.”[12]

“The definitions written in the bill are so broad that any US consumer who uses a website overseas immediately gives the US jurisdiction the power to potentially take action against it,” said Art Bordsky of Public Knowledge.[13]

According to co-sponsor Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee‘s Intellectual Property sub-panel, SOPA represents a rewrite of the PROTECT IP Act to address tech industry concerns. Goodlatte told The Hill that the new version requires court approval for action against search engines.[14] The Senate version, PROTECT IP, does not.[15][16]

“The language of SOPA is so broad, the rules so unconnected to the reality of Internet technology and the penalties so disconnected from the alleged crimes that this bill could effectively kill e-commerce or even normal Internet use. The bill also has grave implications for existing U.S., foreign and international laws and is sure to spend decades in court challenges. Fortunately, this is the House version of a Senate bill called the Protect IP Act (S. 968) that is very different. As a result, both bills if passed in something resembling their current states will have to be considered by a conference committee,” said a news analysis in the information technology magazine eWeek.[17]


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