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What does SOPA mean for your Website?

SOPA stands for “Stop Online Piracy Act” and is a piece of Federal Legislation which has polarized the Internet community in recent months. So, just what is going on?

SOPA is a sister bill (a bill with proposed legislation which has not yet become law) to the Protect IP Act (PRO IP), which itself aims to hold hosting companies accountable for the content on sites.  For instance, if a website deals in counterfeit goods, or is selling pirated movies or music, then the hosting company could be held liable, and not just the website owners operating the business.

SOPA goes much further than PRO IP in that it provides the US Government with the power to tackle not only websites using copyright protected materials, but also the Government would have the ability to associate damages to the users of that content as well.  In addition, a website can effectively be made to disappear for just one violation.

On the one hand, SOPA is ostensibly aimed at online piracy.  However, the highly controversial segment is that SOPA takes aim at not only pirates themselves (who are typically beyond US jurisdiction), but anyone who facilitates their activities. e.g. hosting companies, and individual users who download, use or purchase the wrongful goods and/or services.

On the other hand, SOPA delivers a powerful tool into the hands of the US Government to censor the Internet. The vague wording of the Bill, together with the application of what is known as “extra-territoriality” (the extension of US law into overseas, sovereign jurisdictions by the US Government), has created many serious objectors to SOPA.

Worded as it is, if your website used a song segment or created a screenshot GIF from a TV show or movie, which may be perfectly legal under Fair Use provisions of existing copyright laws, then you may be subject to association given SOPA restrictions. Potentially, the charged website could be sued, fined, face criminal penalties, or have its’ site removed entirely contingent upon not meeting SOPA guidelines.

The current US legal framework for the Internet is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and this currently provides websites with immunity against liability for content posted on their sites by users.  For instance, YouTube is not taken down every time a consumer posts a clip of a TV show or movie. SOPA will end this protection, opening the door to websites themselves potentially being held liable for what their users post on them – just think of Facebook as well as other social networking sites, and you’ll start to see the challenges tied to ubiquitous censorship.

A website could be punished for simply not doing what the US Government perceives to be “not enough.”  This is obviously an important topic for all websites, large or small; respectively.

Over the past few days, news agencies reported that Congress has dropped SOPA following an announcement from the White House that President Obama may veto the bill. We’ll continue to watch closely on what develops, and plan to post again on SOPA as more information is released.