The SOPAbox: Defeating online piracy by destroying the internet

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Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Unless you've been living under a rock, chances are you've heard of SOPA and PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act are two radical pieces of copyright legislation currently being pushed through the US government. Although the stated intent of the new legislation is to provide companies with additional tools with which to combat piracy, the bill's loose wording has raised some serious alarm bells. Opponents to the proposed law say it would give corporations the ability to shut down any almost any website under the guise of protecting copyright infringement.

Gamers will be affected worst of all, as the loose wording of the law makes any website with user-submitted content potentially vulnerable to a shut down order. That could include YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, any blog with a comment section, or even any online game with a chat system. Perhaps the scariest part is that you'll be affected even if you're not in the US, as one of the new law's enforcement mechanisms is to remove a site from the DNS records, a move that assumes the US has jurisdiction over the global Domain Name System. AOL is among many huge companies strongly opposing SOPA, and so naturally Massively opposes it too.

In this week's massive two-page Soapbox, I make the case for why you should be worried about SOPA, and I suggest what can be done to tackle piracy in the games industry. Comments can be left on page two.


Current enforcement mechanisms

Companies in the film, music and games industries obviously have a need to protect their copyrights and prevent misuse of their intellectual properties. The internet has provided massive opportunities for piracy, making it incredibly simple and cost-effective to illegally obtain copies of games, films, and music. The use of digital formats means that the old argument of pirate copies being lower quality no longer applies as pirates are getting the full digital product for free.

The current system in place to stop this kind of copyright infringement is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a piece of legislation designed to provide a fast-track method for companies to get their copyrighted material removed from an offending website without putting that website at risk.

Because of the DMCA's "safe harbour" rule, a website with user-submitted content like YouTube is not held liable for the content its users post. If you upload a song to YouTube, you might be breaking the law, but YouTube isn't. When copyright owners find infringement like this, they send the website owner a DMCA request, and the offending content is selectively removed. The argument being put forward by corporations supporting SOPA is that the DMCA doesn't work against websites that just ignore the requests. Websites hosted in the US that ignore DMCA requests can eventually be taken down, as the webhost company would be aiding criminal activities if it refused, but foreign sites can't.


The spirit of the law

The US legal system has no jurisdiction over websites hosted outside the US, so pirates usually just move their servers to another country and ignore takedown requests. These "rogue websites" may be doing business with people in the US, and the spirit of SOPA is to provide a mechanism for blocking access to those websites for all US citizens. Unfortunately, it's such a badly worded piece of legislation that it can be used to block access to almost any legitimate website.

A website can be classified as rogue if it is primarily engaged in offering services that can enable or facilitate copyright violation, but any website with user-submitted content fits that description. The primary purpose of gaming forums and blogs, for example, is to offer people a means to have text discussions. As text can be used to share links to copyrighted material and therefore facilitate copyright violation, those sites (including Facebook and Twitter) could easily be deemed rogue if any user posts a link to copyrighted material. History is replete with examples of people using the word of the law to defeat the spirit of the law, and there's no reason to assume SOPA would be treated any differently.

Shifting the blame

People have also complained about some of SOPA's bizarre provisions that expose website owners to uncertain liabilities; Section 103(a)(I)(B)(ii)(I) in particular renders a website owner liable if he takes "deliberate action to avoid confirming a high probability" that a user is infringing copyright. The unclear wording of this provision means website owners and ISPs that don't invasively monitor all user-submitted content (including private messages) could be held liable for the actions of their users. This would effectively override the DMCA's safe harbour rule for websites operating in good faith whose services are nevertheless used to facilitate piracy. YouTube, for example, could be made liable for copyrighted music appearing on the website even though it's financially and technologically infeasible to check every video for violations.

Head over to page two, where I look at SOPA's DNS takedown provisions and what they mean for MMOs, challenge the effectiveness of SOPA to actually stop piracy and lay down some simple rules for battling piracy in the games industry.