ArtsWatch: Antipiracy Bills Play-By-Play

Will the creative industries gain ground in Congress' fight against foreign rogue websites?
January 23, 2012 -- 5:15 am PST
By Philip Merrill /

In recent news ...

Internet users' attention was focused on House and Senate antipiracy bills as Internet companies raised a national outcry, claiming the bills' legislative approaches to cracking down on foreign rogue websites would damage the Internet. In reviewing the play-by-play of the so-called PIPA and SOPA bills since Jan. 12, it is worth remembering that the targets of the bills are the copyright infringing foreign websites. Copyright owners want legislation passed this year to provide new law enforcement tools. Internet companies insist they support the goal and only question the methods; however, delay and inaction support their current business practices, so cries to hit the legislative brakes are partly motivated by commerce. Both sides enjoy bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. Regulation to build the best functioning environment for both consumers and commerce almost always comes in fits and starts. As an example, it took decades for the automotive industry to accept regulations requiring seat belts. Foreign rogue websites are the present-day challenge. Below is an outline of the battle over what will be done, and if it will be done sooner or later.

  • Jan. 12 — Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the author of S. 968, the PROTECT IP Act, announced he would amend his bill to extract domain name blocking, even though this provision was initially less controversial than it has become. The bill's leading opponent in the Senate, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), welcomed the announcement but insisted his opposition would continue until more concerns were addressed and fully understood.
  • Jan. 13 — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the author of H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, announced he too would amend his bill to strip out domain name blocking, but encouraged progress on its other provisions. "Congress cannot stand by and do nothing while some of America's most profitable and productive industries are under attack," he said. On the Senate side, Leahy suggested legislators should welcome the procedural vote scheduled for Jan. 24. "All senators should want to debate this important issue." On the contrary, six Republican co-sponsors of Leahy's bill wrote to Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) requesting the vote be canceled due to "the need to resolve as many outstanding concerns as possible prior to proceeding to floor consideration."
  • Jan. 14 — In a response to two online petitions, three advisors to President Barack Obama said, "We want to take this opportunity to tell you what the administration will support — and what we will not support." U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel, and Special Assistant to the President/Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt identified two hot-button objections — domain name blocking and "overly broad private rights of action" against "advertising networks, payment processors, or search engines." Encouraging voluntary improvement of business practices as well as cooperation on developing new laws, the advisors said, "The administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year."
  • Jan. 17Smith announced that markup of SOPA would resume in February. Referring to protests planned for the following day, Leahy said, "Much of what has been claimed about the Senate's PROTECT IP Act is flatly wrong and seems intended more to stoke fear and concern than to shed light or foster workable solutions."
  • Jan. 18 — Thousands of websites participated in a national day of protest against Leahy and Smith's antipiracy bills. Google's online petition gathered more than 4.5 million signatures. Wikipedia hampered U.S. homework by going dark. Street protests were held in New York and San Francisco. The protests were supported by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). Polis said, "Wikipedia and Google's blackout is part of the largest online protest in history," and called SOPA "ripe for abuse as companies could exploit the private right of action to block a competitor out of existence." Issa introduced the House version of an alternative antipiracy approach — H.R. 3782, the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act. He had released draft language for the bill last month in conjunction with Wyden, who introduced Senate version S. 2029 on Dec. 17. The OPEN Act would treat illegal digital imports as a trade violation. Its opponents claim it is incompatible with the need for expedited enforcement. Leahy's website published a fact sheet rebutting false claims and commented, "The PROTECT IP Act does not make any activity illegal that is not already illegal."
  • Jan. 20Reid announced he would delay the vote on the Protect IP Act while Smith similarly opted to postpone consideration of his House bill "until there is wider agreement on a solution." Both bills will likely be redrafted, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted a solution that "both deals with online piracy and continues to ensure a free and open Internet" needed to be found.

President Barack Obama proposed consolidating six business- and trade-related agencies on Jan. 13, calling on Congress to grant him the reorganizing authority enjoyed by many former presidents. The list notably includes the Department of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, both of which have been active participants in recent U.S. antipiracy efforts. Consolidation could save billions of dollars and would not necessarily entail any loss of effectiveness, but this development is worth watching.

Last week China's Ministry of Commerce spokesman Shen Danyang argued that the U.S. Trade Representative was wrong to put Alibaba's Taobao websites on the list of notorious markets released last month without more proof. "Since there is no conclusive evidence, there is no detailed analysis, this is very irresponsible and not objective," said Danyang. The list is compiled based on recommendations from third parties such as major U.S. intellectual property trade associations.

The Recording Academy actively represents the music community on such issues as intellectual property rights, music piracy, archiving and preservation, and censorship concerns. In pursuing its commitment to addressing these and other issues, The Recording Academy undertakes a variety of national initiatives. ArtsWatch is a key part of an agenda aimed at raising public awareness of and support for the rights of artists. To become more involved, visit Advocacy Action @ and sign up for Advocacy Action E-lerts.

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