The House of Representative's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) have been the subject of extensive online activism in recent weeks, with websites going dark for a day in protest over the bills. It isn't just social networking sites and copyright infringers that would be inconvenienced by the bills, but company websites, blogs, and intranets could be affected if either bill made it through.
A Breakdown of PIPA and SOPA
While SOPA is on life support and PIPA has lost some of its sponsorships, it is important to understand what entertainment industry lobbyists are trying to push for in the text of these bills and how it could affect your business.
PIPA is a specific bill that would target non-domestic websites like The Pirate Bay that engage entirely in copyright infringement. However, the language in the bill offers a vague definition of these sites that could mean that Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, and any other site on which information is freely shared could be termed an infringing site. Additionally, any site linking to a site that has been declared to be an infringer can be shut down completely by orders submitted not to the company or individual that run the site, but to their web hosting company.
While SOPA's language is similar, it casts a broader net and makes search engines, Internet service providers, Internet advertising providers, and payment providers (such as PayPal) do law enforcement's dirty work. As with PIPA, the language of what constitutes copyright infringement is not clearly defined and it seems to be left up to law enforcement and the plaintiffs.
How This Poses a Problem for Business
Many business owners are shrugging their shoulders and saying "good, they should catch online pirates." I'm not going to disagree on that point. As someone who has had my written material pirated, I'm not totally against the concept of being able to actually do something to someone who rips me off. Right now my option is a DMCA takedown notice and that's it, because trying to sue websites that plagiarize content is like playing Whack-a-Mole.
Where PIPA and SOPA go wrong is their definition of what constitutes a copyright violation and what they can do to websites that are perceived as hosting or linking to an offending site.
Going by the letter of the proposed laws, under SOPA and PIPA, if a news site linked to the Pirate Bay from an article to show what it was all about, that site could theoretically be shut down without question through an order to its web hosting company.
Now apply this to your company's blog, your website, your corporate intranet, and Even your company's Twitter and Facebook accounts. If an employee posts a picture by accident that is licensed through Getty images without obtaining a license, Getty can apply to have your corporate website shut down and your PayPal accounts frozen. Right now they can still sue you (and they totally will -- don't try it) but they can't take any additional draconian measures over and above the usual legal recourse.
Under SOPA and PIPA, Fear Would Choke Commerce
You can see where this is getting a bit paralyzing for business. How many conversations on social media or through your company blog have resulted in sales or added goodwill for your company? SOPA and PIPA would take away the freedom for employees to engage over social networks or make up-to-the-minute posts on company blogs, for fear that they might somehow unintentionally infringe on someone else's copyright.
It's kind of like putting the insurance companies in charge of how you drive your car. If given this power, many insurance companies would require drivers to pass regular driving and medical tests in order to retain their licenses.
Under these draconian bills, your company could not post links to any website without checking out everything on it, which nobody has the time for. They are impractical bills and designed as blunt instruments rather than as the finely-tuned surgical measures that they need to be. Both bills put the entertainment industry in charge of the internet rather than website and business owners. And I think we can all agree that situation is unacceptable.
Angela West dreams of opening a Fallout-themed pub featuring wait staff with Pip-Boys. She's written for big insurance companies, small wildlife control businesses, gourmet food chains, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @angelawest and Facebook.