Monday, 28 November 2011

A Sit Down about SOPA - Ramifications and Realities

A little late in coming, but SOPA is something that I feel must be talked about. So, what is SOPA, and what does it potentially mean to video games and the sites that cover them?

I know that plenty of other people have cover this already; hell it's hard to go to a game website or media website in general without hearing about this event one way or the other. I admit that I was tempted to post about it last week as well, but I felt that given that I couldn't really say anything that wouldn't be a rehash that it would be best to carry on and wait for a better opportunity such as today.

If for some reason you haven't heard one way or the other by now, there is a bill that has been introduced to the senate in the United States: the Stop Online Piracy Act -- or SOPA for short -- a bill that seeks to change the way that the law and the internet interact. Rather than just try to explain it myself, here's the actual wording of the bill, from the Library of Congress website itself, I'll give you some particularly pertinent sections:

"Authorizes the Attorney General (AG) to seek a court order against a U.S.-directed foreign Internet site committing or facilitating online piracy to require the owner, operator, or domain name registrant, or the site or domain name itself if such persons are unable to be found, to cease and desist further activities constituting specified intellectual property offenses under the federal criminal code including criminal copyright infringement, unauthorized fixation and trafficking of sound recordings or videos of live musical performances, the recording of exhibited motion pictures, or trafficking in counterfeit labels, goods, or services.

"Authorizes the Attorney General (AG) to seek a court order against a U.S.-directed foreign Internet site committing or facilitating online piracy to require the owner, operator, or domain name registrant, or the site or domain name itself if such persons are unable to be found, to cease and desist further activities constituting specified intellectual property offenses under the federal criminal code including criminal copyright infringement, unauthorized fixation and trafficking of sound recordings or videos of live musical performances, the recording of exhibited motion pictures, or trafficking in counterfeit labels, goods, or services...

"Requires online service providers, Internet search engines, payment network providers, and Internet advertising services, upon receiving a copy of a court order relating to an AG action, to carry out certain preventative measures including withholding services from an infringing site or preventing users located in the United States from accessing the infringing site. Requires payment network providers and Internet advertising services, upon receiving a copy of such an order relating to a right holder's action, to carry out similar preventative measures."

My attempt to sum it up might not be completely correct, but I believe has the major points; to approximate if this bill gets passed then any company can file a court order to effectively get a websites taken down or content removed if they believe that website contains material which infringes upon their copyrights. Such a thing can certainly happen now, but it is a much longer process that requires much more of a burden of proof, whereas this new system would be much quicker and also shut down websites and block content without needing requires as stringent as there are now.

So, while this is a big deal, what does it have to do with video games? Well, Sony and Nintendo have both backed this bill, and I also believe that Microsoft has backed it as well as part of a larger conglomeration of companies. Jim Sterling in particular is quite vitriolic about the companies' endorsement of this bill, and not without good reason. Personally I look at it as two possibilities: first and very unlikely as it is there exists the chance that these companies are backing the bill just because it seeks to stop piracy, which would merely make them ignorant to a malicious level. The second and much more likely scenario is that these companies are just being, well, assholes.

The thing is that while I can get behind wanting to stop piracy, from what I (and most other people that oppose SOPA) have seen this bill is so loosely worded that it's likely to end up being used as a bludgeon to annihilate sites and content that companies on the list -- Sony and Nintendo at the very least included -- don't like. For example, if an unflattering review of a game is written, then under SOPA Sony or Nintendo could claim that the review or even the entire website is infringing and bring down the law. This means massive headaches for people that don't have the legal recourse to defend themselves against juggernauts.

Think about it for a moment: this means that if companies were so inclined, then people couldn't use images or videos of their games: that means that reviews with examples from in game go out the window, as do let's plays, boss strategy videos, level walkthroughs on youtube, and many other things. Now, as Xiant from Top Tier Tactics does point out, trying to enforce this law is really another can of worms entirely, and there's also the fact that it is unlikely to pass. But frankly even if it doesn't I believe that this is something that people need to be made aware of, because the more people that know it exists the more eyes can look over this and judge for themselves. Personally I think that such a law if passed would become the biggest case of "When all you have is a hammer" that we've seen in quite some time, to the detriment of all parties involved. But I encourage all of you out there, whether you're from the US or not, to learn a little about this yourself; become educated, and stay informed.

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