The Stop Online Piracy Act and Why Videogamers Should Care

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In a landmark effort to incorporate censorship to the last piece of free media, SOPA or Stop Online Piracy Act was introduced for debate on the Congressional floor November 16, 2011. This bill, backed by major Hollywood interests and union leaders, aims to change the way we use the Internet, forever

If this bill should pass, some of your favorite websites such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr could be completely blocked from American users. The idea is flawed but relatively simple; if any website is found through a third party committee to have “used, enabled or facilitated” piracy-friendly material, the website will be put on a blacklist and completely blocked from search engines, directly entered into a web browser, or any kind of Internet traffic.

SOPA_splash“Section 201 would make it a crime to stream, on the Web, works protected by copyright without permission. The maximum penalty would be five years in prison for a first offense of streaming 10 pieces of music or movies within six months,” says PC World.

Why should that matter to you?

Well, other than the possibility of losing sites like YouTube and Blogger (really any kind of blogging) – AbleGamers would no longer be able to show you streams of games or screenshots highlighting the accessibility of games without the express written permission of the holders of the intellectual property.

Jennifer Mercurio, Vice President and General Counsel of the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA), the nonprofit membership organization which represents gamers in the U.S. and Canada, posted the following in regards to why videogamers should care:

If a pair of bills on Capitol Hill, called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP, pass, you could be fined and thrown in jail for streaming (i.e., "performing") your video game speed runs or game play. Just as people post cute pictures and videos of themselves, their pets and their kids singing and dancing to copyrighted works, gamers of all ages routinely post pics and stream video of themselves during game play. All of these things have, for the most part, been considered "fair use" under the law. Tens of thousands of videos currently available online featuring game play from popular games like Call of Duty, Halo, Starcraft and others could be made illegal under these laws.

Since games also rely on the unique and fresh content that gamers create structurally and within game play, SOPA/PROTECT IP would freeze such innovation. Creative new works developed out of the technology of video games could be stifled by these new laws. Machinima, or videos created using in-game tools such as in Red vs. Blue, may never have come about if SOPA/PROTECT IP were in place.

“Say you’re writing an article, and one of the websites or quotes that you want to reference comes from a site that has been accused of piracy. Even if your piece does not include anything that could be considered copyright infringing, if it links to a source that does–a source as innocuous as a YouTube video or a Tumblr post–your entire article could be blocked from the Internet in the US,” says MediaBistro.

“Want to upload a video from the Occupy Wall Street protests to YouTube? Or maybe upload an audio interview to Soundcloud? If SOPA passes, these sites would be entirely responsible for the actions of their users. That means that if just one user posts content deemed illegal by SOPA, the entire website could be blocked. Platforms that are integral to both citizen journalism and successful multimedia journalism could effectively cease to exist.”

Yup, suddenly the world of Free Press turns into self-censorship. The world already has something like this; it's called the great firewall of China. For those of you who have not been to China, there are a large number of sites China deems unworthy of being visited and requires its citizens to show “self-discipline” and not visit those sites. Not that they could anyway, since they are blocked.

And let's face it, this will not stop piracy. Just as happened with DRM only a few years ago, those who are pirates will continue to steal and those who are innocent consumers will be hurt. The only difference is now instead of being inconvenienced by having a piece of DRM force you to check-in constantly to make sure your game is legitimate, even if you're off-line and can't connect to the Internet, you'll be unable to access your favorite websites by their DNS.

The government isn't allowed to block IP addresses, so you would still be able to access any site you can now, assuming they don't shut down. However, things would look a little bit differently as Lifehacker explains:

“…if Lifehacker happened to have an article or two that could be interpreted as piracy-friendly, our domain could be blocked so it's unaccessible by visiting lifehacker.com. What the bill can't do is block numeric IP addresses, so you could still access Lifehacker, or any other site that could be censored, if you knew that address. This is important because it means this bill can't do much to stop downloaders of pirated content. If a domain name is blocked, everything will still work via the numeric IP address. Basically, the bill will be no good at stopping piracy—what it was apparently designed to do—but excellent at censoring any web site capable of providing its users with the means of promoting pirated content or allowing the process…”

So, you'll still be able to get to your favorite websites like YouTube and AbleGamers, but it will look entirely different. Instead of being the editor-in-chief of ablegamers.com, I'll be the editor-in-chief of 212.942.555.42. That should be fun to put on business cards and explain to gaming studios.

In case you don't want to take the time to read all the finer points of the bill and what it means to you, Mashable posted an excellent info graph showing you all the things you need to know at a glance.

Also, The Center for Democracy and Technology is keeping a wonderfully updated post pulling quotes from all around the web about the topic at hand. Here's to hoping we can add even more voice to the cause.

As Jennifer summarized her article, “These bills could impede or block constitutionally protected speech. This point is especially troublesome in the shadow of the great video games speech victory earlier this year, Brown v EMA, where the Supreme Court finally held video games to be such protected speech in their own right.

Since we already have laws covering this area on the books, it defies logic to further burden American consumers in these arbitrary and capricious ways. The ECA stands in opposition to these bills.”

AbleGamers rarely gets into political debates, even rarer do we bother the readers. However, in this circumstance, if SOPA is allowed to pass, we will all lose freedoms we have known all of our lives. AbleGamers does not support or condone piracy. If you believe in a product or service you should pay the money to use the service or product. But this bill is not about piracy, it's about control.

Those who pirate software will still continue to do so. You'll still be able to buy bootleg movies, despite the hopes of the MPA, at your local trader Jack's for $3. You'll still be able to download music and games on torrent. And speaking as an author, you'll still be able to steal books instead of paying for them. Because the real pirates will figure out workarounds before the bill is enacted.

The real person who will be hurt. The real person who will take the fall. The real person that loses if this bill is passed is you, the average American who hasn't downloaded anything illegally in their entire lives, because you will no longer be able to access your favorite legitimate websites.

If you believe this is wrong and you want to keep your freedoms, please join me in visiting http://americancensorship.org. Once on the website, you'll have the opportunity to fill in your name, address, and zip code that will be used to send a standardized letter that can be edited to your liking sent to the congressman in your district. It couldn't be easier.

About the Author
Steve Spohn
Author: Steve Spohn
Steve Spohn is the Editor-in-Chief of AbleGamers & Outreach Chair for the Foundation. He is an expert in gaming with disabilities and assistive technologies and can be seen on MSNBC, CNN, G4 and more.

People in this conversation

  • when rating agencies insist on freedom of speech while occupy Wall Street activists are chased away, something's wrong.

  • Man, what is it with governments these days? First the Canadian government wants to spy on everybody online and now this?

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