Simply put, The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) currently under development in Congress will provide a rapid way to sentence websites to death without the need for pesky things like judges and juries. Much to the surprise of nobody who understands how the Internet works, these two Acts will have absolutely no effect on digital piracy, but they will create an environment where freedom of speech could be severely curtailed, large companies can execute competitors, and scientific data can be hidden from the public.
To understand these claims, we need to explore how copyright works. As I type each and every word in this column they are copyrighted the moment they appear. Although you can file official copyright forms with the government, it's not required. Pretty clever, right?
Now, because you own a copyright on everything you write or record, this makes the Internet a tricky place to set up a website like the Huffington Post. The only way to allow free expression in an online environment where millions of people leave copyrighted comments is to involve some lawyers.
For example, if you leave a message at the bottom of this page (please do by the way), you are giving the Huffington Post the right to use your magically copyrighted sentences -- do use full sentences when commenting; this isn't YouTube, we've got some standards. It's all explained right here in the Official HuffPost Terms and Conditions, which I hope you read thoroughly and memorized before entering the website.
Under the current law, if you leave a comment that contains the entire Harry Potter saga, you and you alone are responsible for infringing on that copyright... you also have too much time on your hands. As it stands, Huffington Post would have to remove the comment if the copyright holder contacts them, but it is not their fault that you posted the copyrighted work to their website. This is known as the Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It's the equivalent of saying you aren't personally responsible for murder if a random person kills someone on your property. This is a reasonably sane method of protecting copyright, which was apparently a problem that had to be rectified immediately. Enter SOPA and PIPA.
What these Acts will do is make websites liable for any content that appears on them. The bills will create a way to cut the link between the name of the website, like HuffingtonPost.com to the place where the website actually lives -- a web server with a seemingly non-connected numerical identity. The server will still exist and contain the website, but typing in the human friendly '.com' name will no longer connect it to the IP address. Don't fret though, it only took the online community a couple microseconds to create a Firefox plugin that ignores that problem. The end result? Pirates will go on their merry way and never look back, but legitimate websites will be stuck with the consequences.
As a side note, I have no idea why the SOPA supporters insist on using the term pirate. The same studios fighting against 'pirates' produced a billion dollar franchise romanticizing the idea of piracy using Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly. Torrenters of the Caribbean just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Anyhow, what these Acts will really do is kill websites that have a reputation and paid staff. In other words, websites that already comply with the DMCA. The insidious parts of SOPA and PIPA create a simple way for copyright holders, without a trial, to force payment companies and services like Paypal to stop sending money to websites accused of hosting pirated content. Ultimately they may even be able to force your Internet service provider to stop allowing you to connect to the server where the accused website lives.
This means that every single website will have to monitor every single post, looking for copyrighted content. Which is hard, because as I explained earlier, you don't have to report a copyrighted work to a central database. Everything you've ever written is technically copyrighted. This opens an unscrupulous backdoor that would allow businesses to kill off their competitors, stifle free speech and shut down scientific discussion.
For example, lets say I want to take down the Huffington Post because it competes with my website for traffic. I could reach deep into my two copyrighted books (shameless plug for Betrayal and Tails of Socrates) and pick out a couple chunks of text. Then I could use different anonymous wifi hot zones to upload passages from my books to the Huffington Post as comments. I then report HuffPost to the Justice Department. I could keep doing this until I established that the Huffinton Post has a pattern of displaying my copyrighted works without a license (I would totally make up a name to call them.... like the Pirate Post... or something way more clever). Under PIPA and SOPA, the Justice Department would then order financial institutions to stop processing payments for HuffPost, which would keep them from collecting advertising revenue. I've killed the site for my own personal gain.
Lest you think I'm engaging in hyperbole, there is strong evidence that Viacom and many other studios uploaded their own content to YouTube using public wireless networks and doctored them to look pirated. More recently, Universal Music forced YouTube to take down a song they disagreed with by apparently claiming the 'Mega Song' infringed on their copyright, even though they clearly didn't own the copyright.
Now, how does this apply to science? Let's say you are greatly displeased that a science journal posted a result that disagrees with you in some way. Maybe it's business, ideology, religious, or a personal vendetta. You could write a letter to the editor supporting or opposing some unrelated article and include a liberal sprinkling of copyrighted work within the letter. You would of course need a silent partner who owned the copyrighted work you cribbed from. The journal, in the interest of scientific discussion and openness, posts the work. Mission Accomplished! The journal's website is now responsible for publishing that copyrighted work.
Your friend can now try and use the Justice Department to financially execute the journal, which will likely result in their entire catalog (including the offending article) being thrown in disarray and possibly lost because they can no longer afford to operate. Since the journal owns the copyright to that work, the scientists cannot just reproduce the articles elsewhere. At the very least such actions would make scientific outlets rightfully suspicious of discussions that emanate from the general public.
Don't be fooled by pro-SOPA supporters who claim that these Acts will only apply to websites outside the country. The big copyright holders are trying to get laws like SOPA and PIPA passed worldwide. You can probably see where I'm going with this. For the rest of the world, U.S. websites exist outside of their country. That means that if someone in Spain can show that a U.S. website infringes on their copyright, they can demand it be taken down and financially executed. The U.S. has signed many copyright treaties and would likely be required to comply.
Make no mistake, I am a strong supporter of copyrights. They prevent others from profiting off my work without my permission. However, SOPA and PIPA will never achieve their desired goal of decreasing piracy and increasing jobs. Instead they will allow unscrupulous activities that stifle freedom of speech, throw off the balance of the free market and hide scientific results.
I urge you to do something about it. Contact your Congressional Representatives. More than 1 million people already have. You can check SOPATrack to see where your reps fall on the issue and get their phone numbers. Many have not taken a position, you can make sure they take the right one. Already Paul Ryan has been forced to back off his support for SOPA, we can make the rest of them do the same. For Science!