SOPA and PROTECT-IP: A Line-By-Line Analysis of the Bills We Must Kill

The last two sections of Title One I will sum up simply. The second-to-last establishes some new government make-work and expands the central government's duties a little bit. No surprises there, since it is, after all, a government bill. The last portion is apparently supposed to allow the U.S. government to take broader actions against especially notorious copyright infringers. Probably the most important part of the section is that the U.S. government wants to give serious consideration to prohibiting foreign infringers from raising capital in the United States.

It's an interesting idea in theory, but I think the only ultimate result would be to keep money out of the United States. Piracy would continue totally unabated, I suspect, even if this passed. The government can change only the ability of people in the United States to get hold of things pirated from copyright holders in the United States. How much disincentive does being banned from the country hold to a person running a streaming service in India, exactly? Well, they won't come here for a vacation home. Guess that's something.

Title Two of SOPA is well known on the internet because it offers censorship of a completely different kind. Pages 54-59, right at the beginning, enumerate a number of changes to Title 17 and 18 of the U.S.C. which, if they passed, could do some very nasty things to copyright laws in the United States.

The first modification is that "public performances," including by internet, are added as copyright violations to every section on par with making copies and distributing them. There is a pseudo-limitation in that it's only a violation if the owner was intending on distributing or disseminating the work commercially, or on not disseminating it at all. The best I can tell, the only other case that exists is non-commercial dissemination or distribution. That may sound like it changes the current situation very little, but it changes quite a lot.

The biggest concern is that this change will be used to stymie critiques of games, movies, et cetera. This change alone would certainly wreak havoc on several internet cottage industries, including sites that do "Let's Play" game playthroughs, or certain song reviews. Potentially even reviews of short games would be affected, with more possibly following depending on strictness of interpretation.

This could be interpreted to make covering a song without specifically approaching the copyright holder illegal. It could even put restrictions on political candidates wanting to play or quote parts of an opponent's speeches, if they were recorded by news organizations that claim the recordings. Note also that a proposed change of wording in Title 18 of the U.S.C. would allow one year of imprisonment to be an automatic option for making even one copy of a copyrighted work, and will remove the $1,000 minimum damage previously required for that option. If the music industry lobby gets that particular bauble passed, I shudder to imagine what the effects would be, but I can tell you it wouldn't be pretty.

I'd also like to direct your attention to a change the bill makes in the way the value of a copyrighted work is found. It wouldn't just be the total value of the reproductions. The word "dissemination" is used instead of "distribution" in many of the proposed changes specifically because the bill is extending into the realm of works that are free but available through a commercial enterprise. In fact, as lines 3-13 of page 59 describe, the "value" of the copyrighted work would also include both the price of licensing and any advertising revenue made from the reproduction. If this were from a Let's Play made by an internet reviewer, for example, it would mean loss of income from the play-through, plus the additional cost of the various fines.

Up through page 66 is another devolution into a discussion of counterfeit drugs. Not sure what lobby is responsible for this, or why. I'll take this opportunity to restate something I repeat whenever I can: we must push for single-issue bills in the government. If the contents of a bill can't stand without dealmaking on totally separate issues, they can't stand at all. And we've had enough omnibus bills for one millennium.

Sections 203 and 204 of SOPA deal primarily with increasing the rigor of laws designed to protect against corporate espionage from foreign sources. There are two major problems with these sections. One is that, as with the above, they are only tangentially related to internet piracy. The other is that I don't think there's much you can do to corporate espionage laws -- which are already pretty strict -- to stop it from occurring. It's already a sufficiently dangerous enterprise that I think toughening the punishments is more for show than actual effect. Then again, this is the same government that brought you the Transportation Security Administration.

Finally, the very last section in the bill covers defending property rights abroad. This is where the bill has serious delusions of grandeur. To begin with, it wants to force the secretary of State and secretary of Commerce to prioritize respecting U.S. copyrights as a "significant component of United States foreign and commercial policy in general, and in relations with individual countries in particular."

I'm not sure what exactly that's supposed to mean.

To begin with: even if we were successful in this respect, is encouraging world governments to monitor the actions of their citizens more closely really the way we want to play this?