With the recent and, perhaps hasty, overhaul of the patent law system in the United States through the America Invents Act signed into law by President Obama on September 16, 2011, it appears that Congress has now shifted its focus from patent legislation to copyright legislation. The shift to copyrights comes in the form of a bill called the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 (also referred to as the “PROTECT IP Act,” “United States Senate Bill S.968,” or simply, “PIPA”) that was introduced and passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 12, 2011 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
Several large firms and business groups in the entertainment industry, such as the MPAA and the US Chamber of Commerce, have expressed support for the legislation and claim that PIPA would help shut down “rogue” websites dedicated to infringing activities, such as the online sale of counterfeit products, and save U.S. jobs.
However, arguing that PIPA was an overreach that would imperil free speech and innovation on the Internet, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) placed the bill on hold and prevented the bill from going to the Senate floor for a vote. Senator Wyden exercised the rule allowing a single senator to place a hold on a bill, even though a hold may be overridden by a 60-vote majority. Senator Wyden is also known for blocking a similar bill, called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed it in late 2010 which would have expanded the power of federal agencies to seize the domain names of allegedly infringing websites.
While the Senate version of PIPA allows the Department of Justice to seek court orders to force search engines and ISPs to stop sending traffic to websites accused of copyright infringement and allows copyright holders to seek court orders to require payment processors and online ad networks to cease any business with allegedly infringing websites, the House version may include new legal liabilities for websites and online services that rely on user-generated content, effectively destroying sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Opponents to the Bill say it would allow rights holders to obtain temporary court orders against infringing sites without adequate judicial review. Several concerned groups, such as Web entrepreneurs like the co-founders of Twitter, foursquare, and LinkedIn additionally argue that the bill’s definition of what constitutes a “rogue site” dedicated to copyright infringement is vague. They argue that the bill could result in inadvertent “collateral damage” to both the Internet and the technology industry because the bill requires that “rogue sites” be removed from search engines, DNS servers, and other third parties. They have asked the House Judiciary Committee members to hold off on the legislation and consider input from the affected groups. While members of the House finally agreed to meet with groups representing the technology industry, it has been reported that the Representatives have ignored the technology industry’s concerns regarding the problems the Bill would cause for innovation and job growth and have decided to release the Bill it had been working on with an accelerated push to get the Bill approved. As the concerned groups have expressed, the stakes are high, and while the technology industry may be leading America out of the recession, “inadvertent damages to the tech sector could not happen at a worse time.”
The House of Representatives is expected to introduce their version of the bill this week.
UPDATE: October 26, 2011
A bipartisan group in the House today introduced the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (H.R. 3261). The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the “Stop Online Piracy Act” on November 16, 2011. The text of the bill can be found here.