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The battle over SOPA heats up

U.S. Army Cpl. Jesse Pelayo snacks in his barrack while watching a DVD on his laptop computer May 1, 2008 in Fort Stewart, Ga.

The fight against online piracy is getting more aggressive. The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing today concerning the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. It's a bill recently introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that would block access to websites that distribute unlicensed content or facilitate the distribution of that content.

Exactly which sites would be targeted, however, can get a little vague, says James Grimmelmann, a professor at New York Law School. "Examples would be a site that has a directory of links to live sports streams around the world or a Bit Torrent tracker that has the information you need to start downloading lots of copyrighted movies. The bill uses a bunch of different terms to try to define these sites, some of which come from the case law the courts have been using, but it also has other terms that are less clearly defined in copyright law, like 'facilitate.' Does YouTube facilitate downloading?"

Maybe. But maybe not. SOPA has a lot of critics wondering if those ambiguities will lead to unfair prosecutions. If you run a website and it has links to unlicensed material, are you facilitating the distribution and therefore a criminal or are you just putting up some links to some stuff you liked?

Also raising some eyebrows is SOPA's enforcement policy. Grimmelmann says, "The bill allows for the issuance of temporary restraining orders against these sites and those can be filed by a judge hearing only one side of the case. And you know, there are protections in the federal rule to prevent this from being too extreme, but it's quite possible that sites would go offline without a lot of warning."

SOPA would call upon search engines and Internet service providers to do a lot more than they're doing now. Under the bill, they would be asked to stop traffic flowing to sites that a judge has issued an order against.

Wendy Seltzer from the Information Society Project at Yale Law School says that would mean creating and maintaining a registry of accused offenders. "It would be a blacklist," she says, "that would potentially grow to crippling proportions for technology and really disrupt the way the internet functions. It would be a big shift from the pursuit of the direct infringer to pursuit of those very indirectly facilitating connections to them."

SOPA, and its sibling bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, have led to some interesting allies. Not surprisingly, the recording and movie industries support it, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Opposing the bill are the A.C.L.U., the Tea Party Patriots, the American Library Association and Facebook.

Also on today's program, are you ready for the latest trend? No, you're not. Because it's indoor beekeeping.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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