The Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill introduced in the United States House of Representatives last fall by Texas Republican Lamar Smith, is losing the support of many of the game industry companies it's supposed to protect.
If passed, the bill would allow the American government and individual copyright holders to take legal action against websites that facilitate piracy, forcibly removing them from search engines and prohibiting payment processing companies from working with them. It would also criminalize and create prison sentences of up to five years for the act of streaming of copyrighted content.
While the proposed legislation would seem to act in favour of content creators and copyright holders, several members of the game industry are campaigning against it.
The chief concern seems to be that the proposed measures go well beyond piracy protection. Brandon Beck, the CEO of Riot Games, makers of the online game League of Legends, posted an open letter on his company's community forum explaining why he believes the legislation is too broad.
"It threatens any website that features user-generated content," the letter states. "In effect, any copyright holder could file a claim that a streaming website is hosting unauthorized content (such as a song in the background of a League of Legends stream). Under the law, ad networks, payment providers and Internet service providers are now potentially liable for their user's infringement. These services could then be compelled to immediately remove support for a streaming website or face a costly legal battle – at a minimum cutting off financial means, and likely shutting off the site entirely."
Basically, the proposed legislation would seem to discourage certain forms of legitimate content creation and content streaming and has the potential to make companies move to limit and remove features in online communities.
Beyond the world of games, academics such as Harvard Law professor Lawrence H. Tribe, experts including Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, and advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have raised questions about the bill's vague wording and broad scope. They claim it gives the government the power to block sites filled with thousands or millions of user generated pages – think YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter – upon receiving a single plausible copyright complaint. Mr. Tribe argues strongly that it would violate the First Amendment.
Others have argued that the legislation in its current form is a major step backward for online privacy. BoingBoing co-editor Cory Doctorow noted in a speech in Berlin late last year that the Motion Picture Association of America – a SOPA supporter – seems to be in favour of the legislation partially because of its potential to help circumvent anonymity. He said that the MPAA "circulated a memo citing research that SOPA might work because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan. It argued that because these measures are effective in those countries, they would work in America, too!"
Still, these concerns have not swayed many of the bill's most important supporters. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which represents most major and many independent game makers, believes the legislation will provide effective protection against piracy and will help reduce industry job loss due to copyright infringement.
However, a wave of developers and publishers – many of them ESA members – have either rescinded their support for the bill or are actively speaking out against it.
Game blog Joystiq reported late last year that heavyweights Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Sony Electronics, and Nintendo, had quietly removed their names from the House Judiciary Committee's official list of supporters.
Some major developers have gone one step further and actually delineated their concerns. Epic Games, he studio behind Gears of War, posted a letter in its community forum in early January stating that it "supports efforts that would stop overseas websites profiting from pirating our games, but we have to do that in a way that's compatible with freedom of speech and due process of law."
Others have resorted to more drastic measures. On Thursday, Red 5 Studios' CEO Mark Kern told Shack News that it would shut down the beta servers and website for its upcoming game Firefall for a full day on January 18th in protest of SOPA, adding that it was "ashamed of the ESA" for supporting the legislation and that it would not attend future E3 events (a major games conference sponsored by the ESA) unless the association reversed its position on SOPA.
Unrest is growing in non-gaming circles, too. Red 5's site and server blackout is planned to coincide with a similar protest already announced by social news site Reddit. According to a post Friday on Forbes.com, Wikipedia is strongly considering joining in.
We in Canada have little say over what transpires in American government, but we certainly feel the repercussions, and not just in terms of our daily online and in-person interactions with our Southern neighbours. Any laws enacted by the U.S. can set a precedent that our government might follow.
With that in mind, how do you feel about SOPA? Does the protection of copyright holders who may be losing their jobs to piracy outweigh other online freedoms? Comments are open.