skull and cross bonesUPDATE: As of January 20, Lamar Smith, chief sponsor of SOPA, is pulling the bill. PIPA is also being taken off the table for now. Click here for more information.

By now, you've likely heard about the controversy that is SOPA, the "Stop Online Piracy Act." But if you thought its effects only applied to the music and entertainment industries, then you've got some catching up to do. If the bill passes in two weeks, internet marketers will definitely feel the heat, too. We wanted to keep you abreast of the situation so you can understand the powerful implications of SOPA, how it could impact your business' marketing if passed, and what you can do to help prevent it.

So, What Exactly Is SOPA (and PIPA)?

SOPA is the acronym for the "Stop Online Piracy Act," a bill that was introduced to the House of Representatives in October. If passed, the bill would give U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders greater power to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.

PIPA ("Protect Intellectual Property Act") is the Senate's version of SOPA, which is a bill that calls for enhancing enforcement against "rogue websites operated and registered overseas" and defines infringement as the distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods or anti-digital rights management technology.

Although this is all probably great news for the music and entertainment industries that have long been plagued by the ill-effects of online piracy, it's less than desirable for businesses and, well, the rest of the web for that matter. While the bill claims to be helping content creators protect their content, it may actually do more harm than good. Here's why...

How SOPA Threatens Businesses and Marketers

If you examine the contents of SOPA, you'll notice that it raises several red flags for internet marketing.

1. Your Website Could Unfairly Get Shut Down/Blacklisted: If the government or the owner of copyrighted material identifies your website as hosting copyrighted material and falling guilty of copyright infringement, penalties could include disabling online advertising networks and payment facilitators (e.g. PayPal) from doing business with your website, preventing search engines from linking to your website (bye-bye, SEO!), and enforcing that internet service providers block access to your website. This can be particularly damaging to businesses that rely on ecommerce to generate revenue.

Furthermore, it weakens the power of "safe harbor" protections of websites. The Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, for example, is a "safe harbor" protection that requires copyright owners who feel a website is hosting infringing content to submit a notice to the website asking for removal of the infringing material. The website is then given a certain amount of time to remove the material. If SOPA gets passed, it would override such safeguards, enabling judges to immediately shut down websites found guilty. Websites will only be able to defend themselves after their site had been taken down, when the damage will have already been done.

But if you make sure you're a law-abiding website, you'll be in the clear, right? Maybe not. Website features such as blog comments and other types of user-generated content could expose you to trouble if a commenter posts copyright infringing content. Because you host the site, you're the one liable. Eek!

2. The Legal Ramifications are Rather Rough: The bill also holds for some very steep ramifications for websites that stream copyrighted content without authorization: up to 5 years in prison! Remember HubSpot's recent flash mob to Michael Jackson's "Thriller?" Yup -- that would probably make us pretty ripe for legal trouble with SOPA. Talk about a hit to the internet's creative content!

3. Its Potential Harm to Big Tech Companies Will Also Affect Smaller Businesses: Think smaller businesses will have it tough? Just think about sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and the like whose sites are posted with countless links from users daily. Under the bill, these sites would literally be unable to function, as the amount of copyright infringing content that gets posted would be completely beyond their control. And if these sites are unable to function, how do you think this will affect your ability to conduct effective inbound marketing campaigns? You might as well just cut social media participation right out of your marketing mix, because these social media just won't exist.

In fact, many of these websites are publicly opposing the bill and have even threatened to initiate an "Internet Blackout," during which several of the biggest sites on the internet -- including Google, Facebook, PayPal, Wikipedia, Twitter, and Amazon -- will shut down to emphasize the damaging effects SOPA could have on the internet.

4. It Doesn't Even Adequately Hurt the Pirates: If your website gets blocked for copyright infringement, it's apparently your website's domain -- not IP address -- that actually gets blocked. Because true pirates understand the distinction, they'll know how to access a website's IP address to download copyrighted material. The average internet user, however, doesn't know how to determine a website's IP address, so denying access to your website's domain will be sufficient enough to screw you over, but not enough to screw over the pirates.

What You Can Do About It

The Senate is scheduled to vote in less than two weeks (on January 24th). If you're rubbed the wrong way by the potential that this bill will get passed, now is the time to share your opinion. In an article by Copyblogger about the problems with SOPA, author Sonia Simone encourages readers to visit Stop American Censorship, and whether you're an American citizen or not (because SOPA affects other countries, too), a die-hard political activist or someone who knows nothing about politics, the site offers ways to contribute to the fight against SOPA.

What are your thoughts about SOPA? How else do you think it will impact internet marketers, positively or negatively?

Image Credit: Mike Kline

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Originally published Jan 12, 2012 11:15:00 AM, updated February 01 2017


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